A week ago last Monday, I was sitting in a bar in the Boston airport across the gate from my delayed flight (I would eventually get home a day late) monitoring tweets and texts for the outcome of the sentencing of Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael Parnell, and their “food safety” director Mary Wilkerson, which was occurring in a federal courtroom in Georgia.
I had flown to Boston the evening before for a 15-minute hearing in federal court that Monday (before the same judge who heard the Boston Bomber case) on an E. coli O157:H7 death case involving a young boy. Although I would not have missed that hearing, my thoughts were in part a thousand miles south thinking of my clients who were testifying in favor of long sentences against the people made infamous when, faced with Salmonella in their product, wrote such memorable emails as: “Just ship it,” “Turn them loose,” and “Costing us huge $$$$$.”
Stewart Parnell — the point person for the Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 people and killed at least nine — and I have never spoken, although I was only a few chairs away when he “took the Fifth” before a packed congressional hearing in 2009. I sued him personally and his company, the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), and watched while PCA was pushed into bankruptcy. I, along with my clients, advocated for years for the prosecution of Stewart Parnell and others for the injuries and deaths and the recall of nearly 4,000 different kinds of food products. The loss of those nine people was certainly incalculable. Some put the economic loss for this one food poisoning event at more than $500,000,000.
OK, back to the airport bar in Boston. Sometime after 5 p.m. Eastern, my text pinged: “28 years for Stew” from someone in the courtroom. Then came: “20 for Bro and 5 for Mary.”
For the above reasons, the 28 years in prison that U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands sentenced Stewart Parnell to seems reasonable. Honestly, I never really knew what to expect, but it felt like justice had been served. Remember, Stewart Parnell was facing more than 70 felony counts for “knowingly” shipping adulterated product into the stream of commerce, as well as mail fraud, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. He could have received 803 years behind bars.
Stewart Parnell and his fellow conspirators are fortunately the exception and not the rule in the foodborne illness outbreaks in which I have been involved over the past 22 years. Certainly, over the past decades some decision-makers came close to the edge of knowingly shipping a tainted product, but most avoided knowledge by failing to inspect or test, thereby creating “plausible deniability.” And, I imagine they were a bit better at not putting things in writing.
I think all would agree that if someone knowingly ships tainted product, jail time is clearly warranted. Let’s just hope as a society that these types of decisions (and even those that come close) never occur again. I am optimistic that simple morality guides most people — with some encouragement by the U.S. Attorney and the Honorable Judge Sands.
As I said to the first reporter who reached me in that Boston airport bar: “This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through boardrooms across the U.S.” I believe that. During the years that it took to get Stewart Parnell charged, tried, convicted and sentenced (hopefully the appeals will be short and unsuccessful), I have been asked to speak around the world on the topic of criminal liability in food cases. What happened to Stewart Parnell, and arguably more important, to his managers and employees, is now on the radar screen of food producers around the world — and that is a good thing.
People in the food business are now very much aware of the no-longer-quiet criminal provisions in the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act — both felony and misdemeanor sections. Not only is that because of the PCA felony case, but also in other outbreaks, where knowledge of contamination was not shown and only misdemeanors charged, prosecutions are happening. A simple fact is that there have been more prosecutions in the past five years for misdemeanor violations (punishable with up to a year in jail and a $250,000 fine per charge) than in the other two decades of my practice.
As my plane finally pulled up to the gate, I told another reporter: “I’d rather Stewart Parnell never go to jail, and that the outbreak had never happened.” I believe that, too. It is sad that Stewart Parnell will likely spend the rest of his life in jail. It is terrible that nine people died and hundreds were sickened due to his greed. The outbreak was a tragedy, and Stewart Parnell is a tragic figure.
In the end, criminalizing food production is not the answer. A sentence like Stewart Parnell’s and more misdemeanor prosecutions certainly have the attention of executives and managers. However, I think we all can agree that avoiding the cause is a far better result for consumers, the companies and employees.
Perhaps what happened in a South Georgia courtroom on Sept. 21, 2015, will be another reason to make the investment in government and industry to help avoid another life sentence — either by the consumer or by the manufacturer.