Corporate Executive Liability Food Safety—Felony Conviction
Peanut Corporation of America Background
The former owner of Peanut Corporation of America Peanut Corp.) Stewart Parnell was convicted on September 19, 2014 of conspiracy and other charges in connection with a deadly salmonella outbreak that occurred in 2008-2009. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people died and over 700 others became ill in 2008-09 after eating peanut butter or other products prepared at the company’s plant in Georgia. Mr. Parnell, was found guilty on several counts, including wire fraud and obstruction of justice. The indictment was centered on a conspiracy to conceal that several of Peanut Corp.’s products were contaminated with salmonella. Others involved and convicted included the brother of Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, a food broker who worked on behalf of Peanut Corp. and the quality assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, for obstruction of justice. Two other former Peanut Corp. employees has previously pled guilty to multiple charges.
Prosecutors alleged that Peanut Corp. not only defrauded customers but also defrauded several national food companies by failing to inform them about the presence of food-borne pathogens in laboratory tests, including salmonella. According to prosecutors, in some instances, despite these results, Peanut Corp. officials totally falsified lab results, maintaining peanut products were safe for consumption. Further, at times, the Peanut Corp. failed to even perform testing.
Corporate Liability Significance
Although for years, corporate executives have been charged with misdemeanor offenses under the strict criminal liability theory known as the Park doctrine, this case is distinguishable. The Peanut Corp. case represents a felony prosecution under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The Peanut Corp. prosecution serves as a wake up call to the regulated food safety industry.
Outcome and Sentencing
Peanut Corp. filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection weeks after the outbreak began. The felony convictions mean the possibility of a extensive prison sentence and fines.