In 2013, five years after the nationwide Salmonella outbreak in 2009 that killed 9 people and sickened more than 700, the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced a 76-count indictment has been filed charging four former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and a related company for selling Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter products.
Former PCA owner and president Stewart Parnell, of Lynchburg, VA, and three other former company leaders, have been charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy, according to the Department of Justice. Stewart Parnell and two others were also charged with obstruction of justice.
In a White House press release, DOJ said charges against former PCA operations manager Daniel Kilgore, of Blakely, GA, was unsealed and that he pleaded guilty to charges of mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
The investigation into the activity at PCA began in 2009, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a national outbreak of Salmonella to a PCA plant in Blakely. As alleged in the indictment, the Blakely plant was a peanut roasting facility where PCA roasted raw peanuts and produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter, and peanut paste; PCA sold these peanut products to its customers around the country.
In company emails obtained through investigation, Parnell allegedly ordered the shipment and sale of products known to be contaminated with Salmonella. When other lots of peanuts tested positive for Salmonella, he ordered them to be retested.
“These indictments will have a far reaching impact on the food industry,” said attorney Bill Marler, who represented hundreds of individuals in claims against PCA. “Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce. Felony counts like this one are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines and jail time can and should happen.”
Last night Food Safety News reported that Mary Wilkerson, quality control officer for the defunct Peanut Corporation of America, is free after serving a 5-year federal prison sentence for obstruction of justice. Wilkerson, 46 of Edison, GA., was released from a re-entry center, or half-way house, in Atlanta earlier this week. Her full release date was moved up by one month to Feb 2 by the U.S. Probation Office in Albany, GA. The mother of two has been separated from her husband and family for the past five years.
Wilkerson was indicted and tried with the company CEO and his brother, Stewart and Michael Parnell. Stewart Parnell was the chief executive of PCA, while Michael Parnell was its peanut broker.
Wilkerson’s offense was a “process crime” over misleading federal agents during the investigation. The government acknowledged she was not part of the conspiracy that led to the Salmonella poisonings that sickened thousands and killed nine. She was not responsible for making restitution to any of the victims.
Samuel Lightsey, who managed the PCA plant in Blakely, GA, at the time of the deadly outbreak, was the government’s star witness at trial and served less than three years.
Another former PCA plant manager, Daniel Kilgore, also made a deal with the government for his testimony for a six-year sentence. He’s next up for release, now set for Jan 30, 2021. He is at a minimum-security federal prison in Oakdale, LA.
Doing the most time for the PCA-related convictions, however, are the Parnell brothers. The Albany, GA, federal jury found Stewart guilty on 67 federal felony counts and Michael guilty on 30. The second generation of his family to run PCA, which spanned three southern states, Stewart was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and his brother to 20.