Guilty verdicts in Peanut Corporation of America trial

by Keith Nunes
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The 2009 Salmonella recall resulted in nine deaths, more than 700 illnesses and one of the largest food recalls ever.

ALBANY, GA. — A federal jury found two former executives of the Peanut Corporation of America (P.C.A.) and a broker the company worked with guilty on Sept. 19 of actions that led to a massive Salmonella outbreak in 2009 that resulted in nine deaths, sickened more than 700, led to one of the largest recalls ever and involved dozens of food manufacturers that were customers of the company.

Stewart Parnell, president and chief executive officer of the former company, and Michael Parnell, Stewart’s brother and a broker at the time of the outbreak, were convicted of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and the introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce. Steward Parnell also was convicted of the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson, former quality control manager at the company’s plant in Blakely, Ga., also were convicted of obstruction of justice.

The verdicts followed a seven-week trial in the Middle District of Georgia during which prosecutors presented the testimony of 45 witnesses. Among those who testified were Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, both former operations managers for P.C.A. and both of whom earlier pleaded guilty to several crimes for their roles in the sale of the Salmonella-tainted food by P.C.A.

The government presented evidence at trial to establish that Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell, with Mr. Lightsey and Mr. Kilgore, participated in several schemes by which they defrauded P.C.A. customers and jeopardized the quality of the peanut products they manufactured. Specifically, the government showed that the defendants misled customers about the presence of Salmonella in the products.

For example, Stewart and Michael Parnell, Mr. Lightsey and Mr. Kilgore fabricated certificates of analysis (C.O.A.s) accompanying various shipments of peanut products that showed the food was pathogen free when in fact there had been no testing or tests had revealed the presence of pathogens. The government also showed that when Food and Drug Administration inspectors visited the plant to investigate the outbreak, Stewart Parnell, Mr. Lightsey and Ms. Wilkerson gave false or misleading answers to questions posed by the officials.

“We are gratified by the jury’s verdict,” said Joyce R. Branda, acting assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.  “The jury delivered a powerful message that there will be serious consequences for criminals who put profit above the welfare of their customers and knowingly sell contaminated food. The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the health of Americans and the safety of the nation’s food supply.”

Stewart Parnell was convicted on more than 70 felony counts; Michael Parnell was convicted on more than 30 felony counts, and Ms. Wilkerson was convicted on one count of obstruction of justice.
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