The food industry was rocked by last month’s news that the U.S. Probation Office for the Middle District of Georgia has recommended a life sentence for Stewart Parnell, former CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), following his multiple-felony conviction for knowingly selling tainted peanut butter that ended up killing nine people. Some are evincing shock and dismay at the harshness of the proposed penalties — a reaction that perfectly reflects the insulated world of white collar crime. But it’s unwarranted given the facts of this disturbing case. Symbol of law and justice in the empty courtroom, law and justice concept.Whatever happens with Parnell, we’re likely to see many more such cases. The refusal of Congress to adequately fund the Food Safety Modernization Act has created a vacuum that makes criminal prosecution the only alternative for public officials determined to police the worst actors in an industry plagued by practices that lead to foodborne illness. Just who are the people who would send the well-heeled (if unsympathetic) Parnell to jail for life? The U.S. Probation Office provides the only investigative resources available to district court judges who try cases involving federal crimes. Its personnel routinely prepare sentencing reports that consider both the facts of the crime and the broader context of the defendant’s life. They are civil servants who act independently of prosecutors. Their recommendations in the peanut case were harsher than what most observers thought possible. Food Safety News reported that if Judge W. Louis Sands adopts the recommendation, the sentence would be the most severe ever imposed in a case involving tainted food. Indeed, if the judge hands down sentences that require the defendants to serve more than a handful of years in prison, the case could become the bellwether of a new day for white collar prosecutions involving health and safety violations. Comparing the recommendation to other white collar convictions ignores the scope of the crime. A more balanced perspective would be to consider the divide between the sentences given to people who commit street crimes and what usually happens to white collar defendants. Consider, for example, the plight of children younger than 18 sentenced to life without parole because 26 states mandate such onerous sentences for anyone accused of certain crimes. According to a study by Human Rights Watch, about 60 percent of the children so sentenced did not have a previous criminal conviction. About a quarter were convicted of “felony murder,” an offense that involves participation in a crime like robbery, even if another person pulls the trigger. Few would argue that children should walk free when they participate in a potentially violent crime. But study after study has documented that teenagers simply don’t have the mental capacity to evaluate the risks of such outcomes. In contrast, Parnell and his fellow defendants had both the maturity to assess risk and the reckless frame of mind not to care who got hurt. Rodent droppings, dead insects, a leaking roof, and broken roasting equipment were just the most obvious problems at the facility Parnell ran in Blakely, Georgia. Fraud was rampant, including the fabrication of the so-called “Certificates of Analysis” provided to Fortune 500 customers. Like his counterparts in Massachusetts, who ran equally contaminated “clean rooms” for the manufacture of sterile drugs, managed to kill 64 people by supplying meningitis-infected injections, and have been indicted for racketeering and second-degree murder — as well as the infamous Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, owner of West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine where 29 men were crushed to death in a preventable mine collapse — the Parnells and their employees were so preoccupied with pushing product that they even communicated their instructions to ignore safety in writing. The criminal law serves three purposes: punishment, deterrence, and the reinforcement of core community values. All three goals justify long sentences for the Parnells. As Peter Hurley, a Portland, Oregon, police officer and the father of a child who got Salmonella poisoning from Parnell peanut paste, told Congress: “If someone is convicted of a felony in the criminal justice system, they go to prison and are not allowed to vote. But, if you poison Americans via their food supply what are the consequences? You pay a fine and keep producing? Is this right? Is this what we as Americans want?” Criminal prosecutions in such cases are multiplying. Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery, the third-ranking official at the U.S. Justice Department, was a featured speaker at the recent industry-sponsored American Food Manufacturing and Safety Summit, where he warned the audience that such prosecutions should stand “as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of disregarding danger to one’s customers in the name of getting a shipment out on time — of sacrificing what is right for what is expedient.” It would be worth considerably more than a penny to know the thoughts of his audience. Did they shrug his words off as saber-rattling, confident that due diligence at their companies was well under control? Or did they feel real discomfort at the thought that the worst could happen at their plants and that they might be called to account if it did? In theory, of course, enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010 was intended to revitalize the prevention of such hazards and, for that reason, was supported by everyone from the Grocery Manufacturers Association to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But as a penetrating analysis by POLITICO recently demonstrated, the law is rapidly becoming symbolic and is perhaps the most stunning example of regulatory failure caused by polarized Washington politics. FDA has not managed to issue any of the rules needed to implement its provisions, largely because of politicized foot-dragging by the White House and Republican efforts to de-fund the agency. Public interest groups have lobbied both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to little avail. That makes prosecutions of this sort more likely. How many might it take for the food industry to join in urging sensible regulation is anyone’s guess, but sooner or later, it needs to happen. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

  • Gary

    I can understand the need to prosecute companies and individuals in light of food safety issues, illnesses, or unfortunately death due to contaminated/adulterated food produced. However, being a QA/FS professional this also puts us in a very difficult spot. QA/FS leaders are often challenged with top company officials taking “shortcuts” which impact QA or FS of food products.

    On one hand we can be a whistleblower or we can document the situation. If we choose to blow the whistle how does that impact our image in the eyes of the current company and also in the eyes of future companies? There could be a serious question of “trust” with that person and basically end their career in the industry.

    On the other hand, if we choose to do nothing and document the situation for our own benefit if it comes to that, how much protection does that provide us?

    • Gary, your point is valid and not limited to the food industry. I am a retired Army officer and I had this conversation multiple times with junior officers. Navigating these situations requires character and good judgement. Seek counsel. I recommend a priest over a lawyer.

    • Susan

      I believe as FS&QA, we have the responsibility to hold our companies accountable. Your integrity comes into question when you do nothing in a situation that requires you to act. How would you feel if something you “documented” could have prevented a death had you acted upon it? Why would you want to work for an unethical company? Don’t help them commit a crime just to keep your job.

      • Jolanta Ganczarczyk

        Absolutely! I left a previous employer because there were simply too many serious food safety issues. But I could not just quit, I raised (and documented) each and every risk to senior management and left with my integrity and reputation intact. No job is worth losing that for!

      • Gary

        Susan, you are right, but it isn’t always easy and it isn’t always black and white. With the trend in the industry and the way legal implications are following I’m really questioning if it is worth continuing to work in the industry.

    • QA Specialist In TN

      Making the right decision is why you are a QA/FS Manager. If you can’t stand up and be the conscious for the company then you are not doing your job. QA/FS is not for the faint hearted.
      * Document everything!
      * Start a meeting before as many in the plant or company as you can. Make your case to the group and don’t back down, The power of the group can sway many who don’t want to “go on record” for their decisions.
      Failure to stand up will cost you your job and career as you will certainly be the scape goat for the manager who manipulated and bullied you into silence. Many large food corporations have dealt with the pain and cost of recalling product. They will see your reason for leaving as just and be glad to hire you.

    • Sandra Palmo

      somehow i thought quality was real time about testing the process as it was happening to make sure it was operating to standard to make sure you didn’t get bad batches in the first place and being resourceful enough to troubleshoot if things started to go south to prevent such an outcome; not an after the fact conclusion when its too late to do anything other than document it.

      surely no company should be producing bad product and no quality person wants to be messenger that they/quality failed and bad batch has to be wasted. but everyone makes mistakes and you got to man up. if you lose your job, better to lose your job and find another than someone lose their life. that is not a hard decision. not hard at all. many people change careers. its people who are afraid of change who are manipulated by the greedy with the result often being evil done to others.

      company asking you to process improve (ingenuity) does not mean the same as short cuts (risk taking) unless i guess you have no ingenuity…in that case you need to network or find another position.

      one way to develop courage and resourcefulness is to always be prepared with a plan B. that includes a career/job plan B. you can’t be complacent. you have to keep improving. like the old saying: do not put all your eggs in one basket. then you will not be poisoning people and going to jail.

      • Gary

        Sandra, you lost the point. I would like to see how you do one week or one month in a QA role in a food manufacturing environment.

        At any rate, yeah it is easy to say to switch jobs. However, you leave that problem behind as well since you basically just leave the situation. So…one is still in the same morale predicament. It isn’t easy, nor is it black and white.

  • bigboss302

    of course if this happened in China the penalty would be a bullet to the back of the head behind the courthouse and the family would be billed the price of the bullet. So its all relative.

  • Amorette

    As long a rich white collar criminals get away with killing people, they will keep killing people. Throw the book at him. Or make him eat his own product.