A former peanut company executive was sentenced Monday to 28 years in prison for his role in a deadly salmonella outbreak, the stiffest punishment ever handed out to a producer in a foodborne illness case.
The outbreak in 2008 and 2009 was blamed for nine deaths and sickened hundreds more, and triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
Experts say the trial of former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and two co-defendants a year ago marked the first time U.S. food producers stood trial on criminal charges in a food-poisoning case. The company went bankrupt following the salmonella outbreak.
U.S. Attorney Michael Moore of Georgia's Middle District, whose office prosecuted the case, called it "a landmark with implications that will resonate not just in the food industry but in corporate boardrooms across the country."
A federal jury convicted Parnell, 61, of knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter and of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.
During the seven-week trial last year, prosecutors said the Parnell brothers covered up the presence of salmonella in the company's peanut products for years, even creating fake certificates showing the products were uncontaminated despite laboratory results showing otherwise.
The Parnells have said they never knowingly endangered customers, and their supporters asked a judge on Monday to show mercy.
"No one thought that the products were unsafe or could harm someone," said Stewart Parnell's daughter, Grey Parnell. "Dad brought them home to us. We all ate it."
An official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified at the trial that the company's peanut products sickened 714 people in 46 states, including 166 of whom were hospitalized. Salmonella is estimated to cause 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. The symptoms usually include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
Tom Bondurant, one of Parnell's defense attorneys, said 28 years prison would amount to a life sentence for his client. He plans to appeal the conviction and sentence.
"If you compare it with other food-safety criminal cases, it's tremendously out of line," Bondurant said.
Two former egg executives in Iowa were sentenced in April to three months in jail for their role in a 2010 salmonella outbreak linked to more than 1,900 illnesses.
Judge W. Louis Sands estimated Parnell faced up to 803 years in prison for his crimes, but said a punishment that severe would have been "inappropriate." He didn't elaborate.
Parnell’s brother, Michael Parnell, and the plant's former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, were also convicted. Michael Parnell was sentenced to 20 years and Wilkerson five.
Stewart Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with killing or sickening anybody. Instead, federal prosecutors charged them with defrauding customers who used Peanut Corporation's peanuts and peanut butter in products from snack crackers to pet food. Parnell was convicted of 67 criminal counts including conspiracy, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.
Al Jazeera with wire services