In 2009, an outbreak of salmonella swept across the United States. Over 700 people were sickened in 46 states; nine people died. At the root of this disaster were contaminated peanuts sourced from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). Peanuts from PCA were used in hundreds of products made by a range of companies including Kellogg, Sara Lee, and Little Debbie, among others. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opened an investigation into the case, leading to the indictment of four former company officials in 2013.
Defense attorneys for PCA owner and president Stewart Parnell argued that Parnell was not aware of the mismanagement at the plant that led to ongoing contamination. They asserted that any fault lay with other company employees. Company executives maintained that FDA inspectors had visited the plant and approved of company practices.
Evidence brought forth from investigations proved otherwise. Federal investigators found standing water, unsanitary conditions, roaches, and evidence of rodents at the plant, all of which can lead to the growth of salmonella. Salmonella was detected in products on various occasions every year since 2003. Records and emails showed that products known to test positive for salmonella were shipped to customers anyway. Products that were untested shipped with fake lab results. According to one account in the court case, Parnell was told that salmonella testing results would not be available on time and this would delay a shipment. Parnell responded, via email, “Just ship it. I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer.” On another account, referring to over 1,300 pounds of products left over from production as “waste,” Parnell emailed employees, “IT IS…MONEY THAT WE DO NOT HAVE BECAUSE OF HOW LONG I HAVE ALLOWED you, your crew and everyone down there to let THIS GO ON…”
Speaking about the case, Judge W. Louis Sands stated, “These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits notwithstanding the known risks. This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed.”
In 2014, Stewart Parnell and his brother and food broker Michael Parnell were convicted of 71 criminal counts, including fraud and conspiracy, among other federal charges. In 2015, Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison, the most severe sentence in a food safety case. Michael Parnell was sentenced to 20 years, and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkinson was sentenced to five years.