I have developed a friendship with many of Stewart Parnell’s victims of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) Salmonella outbreak of 2009. Many of them attended a press conference in 2011, where they asked why after two years Parnell was still free? Re-reading internal emails from PCA from 2008 and 2009, I have to ask why too?
“Turn them loose,” Parnell had told his plant manager in an internal e-mail disclosed at the House hearing. The e-mail referred to products that once were deemed contaminated but were cleared in a second test last year.
Parnell ordered products identified with salmonella to be shipped and quoting his complaints that tests discovering the contaminated food were “costing us huge $$$$$.”
Parnell insisted that the outbreak did not start at his plant, calling that a misunderstanding by the media and public health officials. “No salmonella has been found anywhere else in our products, or in our plants, or in any unopened containers of our product.”
Parnell complained to a worker after they notified him that salmonella had been found in more products. “I go thru this about once a week,” he wrote in a June 2008 e-mail. “I will hold my breath ………. again.”
According to the CDC, 714 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium were reported from 46 states. The number of ill persons identified in each state was as follows: Alabama (2), Arizona (14), Arkansas (6), California (81), Colorado (18), Connecticut (11), Florida (1), Georgia (6), Hawaii (6), Idaho (17), Illinois (12), Indiana (11), Iowa (3), Kansas (2), Kentucky (3), Louisiana (1), Maine (5), Maryland (11), Massachusetts (49), Michigan (38), Minnesota (44), Missouri (15), Mississippi (7), Montana (2), Nebraska (1), New Hampshire (14), New Jersey (24), New York (34), Nevada (7), North Carolina (6), North Dakota (17), Ohio (102), Oklahoma (4), Oregon (15), Pennsylvania (19), Rhode Island (5), South Dakota (4), Tennessee (14), Texas (10), Utah (8), Vermont (4), Virginia (24), Washington (25), West Virginia (2), Wisconsin (5), and Wyoming (2). Additionally, one ill person was reported from Canada.
The CDC went on to state that among the persons with confirmed, reported dates available, illnesses began between September 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009. Patients ranged in age from <1 to 98 years. The median age of patients was 16 years which means that half of ill persons were younger than 16 years. 21% were age <5 years, 17% were >59 years. 48% of patients were female. Among persons with available information, 24% reported being hospitalized. Infection contributed to nine deaths: Idaho (1), Minnesota (3), North Carolina (1), Ohio (2), and Virginia (2).
It really is time, past time, for the U.S. Attorney’s office to seek justice. It has the tools.
Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938 in reaction to growing public safety demands. The primary goal of the Act was to protect the health and safety of the public by preventing deleterious, adulterated or misbranded articles from entering interstate commerce. Under section 402(a)(4) of the Act, a food product is deemed “adulterated” if the food was “prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.” A food product is also considered “adulterated” if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health. The 1938 Act, and the recently signed Food Safety Modernization Act, stand today as the primary means by which the federal government enforces food safety standards.
Chapter III of the Act addresses prohibited acts, subjecting violators to both civil and criminal liability. Provisions for criminal sanctions are clear:
Felony violations include adulterating or misbranding a food, drug, or device, and putting an adulterated or misbranded food, drug, or device into interstate commerce. Any person who commits a prohibited act violates the FDCA. A person committing a prohibited act “with the intent to defraud or mislead” is guilty of a felony punishable by not more than three years or fined not more than $10,000 or both.
A misdemeanor conviction under the FDCA, unlike a felony conviction, does not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct. Rather, a person may be convicted if he or she held a position of responsibility or authority in a firm such that the person could have prevented the violation. Convictions under the misdemeanor provisions are punishable by not more than one year or fined not more than $1,000, or both.
The legal jargon aside, Stewart Parnell, as a producer of food who sold adulterated food, can (and should) face fines and jail time. If not him, then who? If not now, then when?