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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Stewart Parnell, happy damn Father’s Day – You should be in Jail

On January 29, 2009, the Untied States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implicated Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) of Blakely Georgia as the source of a massive Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that sickened over 700 and sent about a dozen to early graves. One can only imagine what thoughts are going through the head of PCA owner Stewart Parnell on Father’s Day. Perhaps he’s grown complacent with the fact that it has been over a year and a half since the massive recall of PCA products and yet criminal charges are nowhere in sight.

The investigation into the outbreak revealed knowledge of product contamination at the highest levels of the PCA corporate structure. What made the PCA outbreak particularly noteworthy was the huge number of products involved in the recall and the disastrous nation-wide health consequences resulting from the tainted products. The investigation following the outbreak revealed evidence of conditions unsanitary to a degree that would likely make Upton Sinclair turn in his grave. The most egregious findings from the investigation, however, came not from production facilities riddled with rat feces, but from internal communications that illustrated knowledge of shipping contaminated products that could be traced all the way to Mr. Parnell himself.

In an e-mail dated October 6, 2008, Mr. Parnell complained to Blakely, Georgia PCA plant manager, Sammy Lightsey, that positive Salmonella results were “costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice.” In the same e-mail, Mr. Parnell stated, “we need to protect our self [sic] and the problem is that the tests absolutely give us no protection.”

Subsequent statements from Michelle Pronto, the microbiology manager of the lab that warned PCA of dangerous test results, indicated that Mr. Lightsey “confirmed that because of high coliform results they were going to send samples to a different lab for a while.”

Ms. Pronto further indicated that her lab “did not receive any samples labeled ‘PCA’ between 8/26/08 and 11/24/08.” Additional evidence indicates that Mr. Parnell begged the FDA to allow PCA to continue shipping peanuts even after the FDA identified PCA’s Georgia plant as the source of the Salmonella outbreak.

In light of the fact that Mr. Parnell wanted to continue with business as usual, even though the products were dangerously contaminated, and the fact that those practices resulted in hundreds of illnesses and a dozen deaths, criminal charges in this case seem more than apt. And yet, to this day we have yet to see a single PCA employee or shareholder prosecuted. It is not as if there are no laws applicable to this situation.

Under federal law, it is a felony to adulterate or misbrand food and put it into interstate commerce. A person who commits such an act “with the intent to defraud or mislead” is guilty of a felony punishable by three years imprisonment. Under the same federal law, a person may be convicted of a misdemeanor without a showing by the prosecution of proof of fraudulent intent, or even a showing of knowing or willful conduct. Instead, 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 up to one-year imprisonment or a $1,000 fine. In cases involving food adulteration or misbranding, individuals can be named as defendants along with corporate entities through which crimes were committed. Individuals named in such cases are usually high-ranking officials who were in charge of the decision-making process that led to a violation of the law, as well as those persons who were actively involved in fraudulent activity. As a result, the presidents of corporations and the managers of the facilities where violations took place are often proper defendants.

Stewart Parnell, happy damn Father’s Day – You should be in Jail and Mr. Tousignant should not be dead.