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Stewart Parnell faces the harshest sentence ever for a food-related crime

By Maria Coder
Updated September 21, 2015 02:20 PM
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Credit: Don Petersen/AP

Former peanut company executive Stewart Parnell faces a potential life sentence in prison after his 2014 conviction for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter, causing an outbreak blamed for killing nine and sickening 700 people.

Parnell, 61, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, along with his brother and a plant manager, were found guilty last September on 71 criminal counts, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and introduction of adulterated food, USA Today reports. It is the first time that a food executive has been convicted on federal felony charges linked to a food poisoning outbreak.

If Parnell were to receive a life sentence, it would be the most severe ever given for a food-related crime, the Washington Post reports.

Parnell was convicted of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter from the company’s plant in Georgia to customers who used it in many products. In addition, the jury found that Parnell’s brother, food broker Michael Parnell, faked lab results intended to screen for the bacteria, per the Associated Press.

Federal investigators found roaches, proof of rodents, and a leaky roof at the plant. They also found emails and records showing that unsafe food was shipped with fake lab records, the AP reported.

Parnell now faces a possible prison sentence of up to 9,636 months – which comes to 803 years.

“We need to send a message to these food manufacturers,” Randy Napier, whose 80-year-old mother died from eating a tainted product, told the AP. “No one else should have to go through what we did, watching my mother die. I’m hoping to have closure. It’s been six years of utter hell.”

Attorneys said testimony from victims seeking tough sentences and defendants’ relatives pleading for leniency could push the sentencing into Tuesday.

Ken Hodges, one of Parnell’s attorneys, said Parnell has already been punished enough. “He’s lost everything he’s ever built, he’s unemployable and he can’t provide for his family,” Hodges told the AP, adding: “I am sorry that people got sick from his peanut butter and died from his peanut butter. And he is too. He’s felt regret for a long time.”

Parnell’s brother, Michael Parnell, was convicted on fewer counts and faces up to 24 years in prison. Co-defendant Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant’s quality control manager who was convicted of obstruction of justice, faces five years.

The salmonella outbreak triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and cost Parnell’s corporate customers $144 million.

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