By Brittney A. Millay

On average, a child will eat approximately 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he or she graduates from high school. That is almost ninety-four pounds of peanut butter per child. In 2008, a peanut butter distributor in Albany, Georgia caused one of the worst Salmonella outbreaks to hit the US.

On Monday, September 21, 2015, the Peanut Corporation of America’s former Chief Executive Officer, Stewart Parnell, was sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison. Although such a steep sentence rarely occurs in food contamination cases, the sentence was justified because the contamination scandal killed nine people and sickened another 714 people across forty-six states. Not only was Stewart Parnell sentenced to serve time in prison, but his brother and partner, Michael Parnell, was sentenced to twenty years in prison, and the company’s former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, was sentenced to five years in prison.

At trial, numerous pieces of evidence and testimonies disclosed that the Parnell brothers continuously tried to cover up the presence of Salmonella in their products by issuing fake certificates showing that the peanut butter was not contaminated even though lab results indicated otherwise. The defense argued that the Parnell brothers never “knowingly endangered customers.” The defense also offered evidence that the Parnell brothers never thought that the products were unsafe or contaminated because they brought the peanut butter home to their families and personally consumed it. This argument was not convincing, especially after a particular email thread from an employee to Stewart Parnell was disclosed. In that email, the employee stated that the peanut totes were “covered in dust and rat crap.” Mr. Parnell responded by telling the employee to “clean [them] all up and ship them.”

The harsh sentences imposed on the Parnell brothers and their former quality control manager raised much discussion on the topic of company executives serving jail time for their wrongdoings. These sentences signal to consumers that the federal government is holding top-tier executives accountable for their actions. The federal government is also ensuring that executives know that their misdeeds may land them in prison with pretty hefty sentences. While the sentences here are “by far the most severe punishment[s] ever given for criminal food safety violations,” they are quite low considering that Stewart Parnell was convicted of 47 charges, which totaled a maximum of 803 years behind bars. However, these sentences send a clear message to executives that the federal government will not stand for their illegal behavior.

The grand jury indictment may be found here.

 

More information may be found here:

Moni Basu, For First Time, Company Owner Faces Life Sentence for Food Poisoning Outbreak, CNN (Sept. 21, 2015, 7:54AM), http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/20/us/peanut-butter-salmonella-trial/.

Gabrielle Canon, You Can’t Go to Prison for Destroying the Economy, But Bad Peanut Butter is Another Story, Mother Jones (Sept. 22, 2015, 2:15PM), http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/09/food-producer-prison-sentence.

Rich McKay, Former Peanut Company CEO Sentenced to 28 Years for Salmonella Outbreak, Reuters (Sept. 21, 2015, 9:03PM), http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/22/us-usa-georgia-salmonella-idUSKCN0RL24H20150922.

National Peanut Board, Fun Facts, NationalPeanutBoard.org (May 14, 2015), http://nationalpeanutboard.org/the-facts/fun-facts/.

News Desk, In Case You Missed It, Food Safety News (Sept. 28, 2015), http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2015/09/icymi-in-case-you-missed-it-2/#.VgqwDPlViko.

To calculate the number of pounds of peanut butter consumed per child, I multiplied 1,500 (the number of sandwiches) by 2 (the number of tablespoons of peanut butter per sandwich). This totaled 3,000 tablespoons. I then used a butter conversion calculator (Butter Conversion, TraditionalOven.com, http://www.traditionaloven.com/culinary-arts/cooking/butter/convert-table-spoon-tbsp-to-pound-lb.html, (last visited Sept. 29, 2015)) to convert the tablespoons into pounds. This totaled 93.75 pounds.

 

Here are select articles from our publication that address corporate criminal punishment:

Tristan R. Brown, Nobody Goes to Jail: The Economics of Criminal Law, Securities Fraud, and the 2008 Recession, 41 New Eng. J. on Crim. & Civ. Confinement 343 (2015).

Jeffrey R. Escobar, Holding Corporate Officers Criminally Responsible for Environmental Crimes: Collapsing the Doctrines of Piercing the Corporate Veil and the Responsible Corporate Officer, 30 New Eng. J. on Crim. & Civ. Confinement 305 (2004).