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Peanut exec faces life in prison for food poisoning: A new precedent?

Stewart Parnell, former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, faces up to life in prison for knowingly distributing contaminated peanut butter.

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Peanut Corporation of America's president Stewart Parnell, arrives to United States Federal Court in Lynchburg, Va., March 12, 2009. The former owner of Peanut Corporation of America was sentenced to 28 years in prison on Monday. He was convicted Sept. 19, 2014, of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter from his plant in Blakely, Ga., to Kellogg's and other customers who used it in products from packaged crackers to pet food. The jury also found Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, guilty of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.

Don Petersen/AP/File

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Punishment is set to be meted out in one of the largest food recalls in American history. Stewart Parnell, the former owner of a Georgia peanut company, could face up to life in prison at a sentencing hearing that begins on Monday in Albany, Ga., after he was found guilty last year in connection with a 2009 salmonella outbreak blamed for nine people's deaths and hundreds' illnesses.

Mr. Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, which has since been liquidated, and his brother, Michael Parnell, who was a food broker on behalf of the company, were convicted on federal conspiracy charges in September 2014 for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanuts to customers.

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The peanut case is a rare use of criminal prosecution linked to food contamination, where civil court is the typical avenue for food-safety regulation.

Testimony from the 2009 investigation uncovered that Parnell grew frustrated at the internal salmonella findings and eventually ordered employees to find another lab to do the analysis. “The time lapse, besides the cost is costing us huge $$$$$,” Parnell, who had been a peanut-quality adviser to the US Department of Agriculture until his removal following the criminal investigation, complained in one e-mail about the test results, The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time.

“Part of the system is the ability to penalize the people that fail,” Michael Taylor, a former policy commissioner with the US Food and Drug Administration, told the Monitor. “And there’s been a real failure to do so at the federal and state level.”

During the seven-week trial that took place in 2014, prosecutors said the Parnell brothers covered up the presence of salmonella in the company's peanut products for years, going so far as to create fake certificates showing the products were uncontaminated despite laboratory results showing otherwise.

Michael Parnell faces up to about 24 years in prison for his role in the case. Mary Wilkerson, a former quality control manager at the plant who was found guilty of obstruction, could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

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.

The Parnells also were convicted of charges including mail fraud, wire fraud, and introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead.

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Lawyers for the Parnells argued the brother never knowingly endangered customers, but an order filed on Friday by US District Court Judge W. Louis Sands called that assertion by the defense into question.

"While Stewart Parnell again attempts to paint his actions as reasonable in light of what was known at the time, he cannot escape his emails admitted as evidence at trial that demonstrated he knew peanut products contained salmonella and shipped those products anyway," the judge said.

This report contains material from Reuters.