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Originally published October 5 2014

Peanut butter company CEO reportedly conspired to ship Salmonella-tainted peanut butter that killed 9 people

by Julie Wilson staff writer

(NaturalNews) The results of a new court case offer a glimmer of hope that large, corporate food producers and individual executives will begin to be held accountable for their actions.

Evidence of the peanut butter fraud first surfaced in 2009 following an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Fast forward four years and the United States Department of Justice has finally filed criminal complaints against four former execs, some of whom are now facing hefty jail sentences.

The original source of the Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter came from Peanut Corporation of America, a Georgia-based supplier that sold processed peanut products to schools, nursing homes, prisons and other food processors. The company, owned by Stewart Parnell, shut down in 2009 after being forced to file bankruptcy following the outbreak.

The company committed a variety of unethical and dangerous practices beginning shortly after Parnell purchased Casey's Food Products, Inc., in 2001, soon renaming the facility to Peanut Corp. of America and establishing its headquarters in Lynchburg, Virginia.

"Just ship it. I can't afford to lose another customer"

Stewart Parnell and his food-broker brother, Michael Parnell, were charged with 76 federal counts linked to intentionally shipping Salmonella-laced peanut butter products, according to reports. They were also accused of faking, or covering up, lab results that tested positive for Salmonella.

Friday, September 19, the brothers were convicted of conspiracy, fraud and other federal charges in a Georgia courtroom. Stewart Parnell faces a maximum of 754 years in prison and $17 million in fines.

"We think it was the wrong decision and we will continue to fight on behalf of Stewart Parnell," said his attorney, Thomas Bondurant, who plans to continue fighting by appealing the verdict.

Former plant quality control manager Mary Wilkerson was charged and convicted on one count of obstruction of justice. Both brothers were taken into custody after the verdict and will remain locked up with bonds ranging from $100,000 to $150,000. Sentencing dates have not yet been set.

While the employee's actions undoubtedly caused nine deaths, prosecutors said it would've been more difficult to prove that Salmonella was the culprit, because the victims suffered from compromised immune systems due to age.

Top exec's conviction unprecedented

Instead, thousands of documents, including emails written by Stewart Parnell, made it easier for prosecutors to prove fraud and conspiracy. An email penned in March 2007 by Stewart Parnell to a plant manager about tainted products read, "Just ship it."

Food safety advocates are calling the conviction unprecedented; rarely are corporate executives held accountable for bacteria found in food. "I don't view (Parnell's) conduct as any different than poisoning people or drunk driving," said Fred Pritzker, a lawyer who represented some of the victims. "My strong suspicion is that this happens much more often than is known."

Pritzker's suspicions are correct. In fact, Food Safety News provides an excellent timeline for all of the questionable, and many illegal, decisions made solely by Peanut Corp. of America.

Between September 2004 and September 2006, Stewart Parnell authorized products to be shipped to customers before receiving the results of microbiological tests that revealed the presence of Salmonella on eight separate occasions.

When a customer notified Parnell that one of the products they received tested positive for Salmonella, the top exec's brother suggested that they create false certificates of analysis if needed.

After being told that Salmonella test results weren't yet available in March 2007, meaning that shipping would have to be delayed, Parnell ordered the product to be shipped anyways, stressing that he couldn't lose another customer.

Ironically, that decision, among others, led Parnell to never having another customer again.


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