The Crime Boss, Part 1: The Crime

 

Stewart Parnell, owner and president of the Peanut Corp. of America, is sworn in before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 11, 2009

On the morning of February 10, 2014, at the C.B. King United States Courthouse in Albany, Georgia, the trial of Stewart Parnell, 58, is set to begin. The U.S. Department of Justice, pursuant to a 76 count indictment, is holding Mr. Stewart and 3 other members of his organization criminally responsible for the countrywide deaths of 9 people, and for hurting, many quite seriously, at least 714 more. If convicted, Parnell is looking at serving multiple life terms in a U.S. federal prison. What makes this case extraordinary is that the weapon used by the defendant’s is not the usual one – the gun, the knife, or the bomb; it is, however, something just as lethal, and perhaps even more insidious – commercially produced food that turned out to be laced with salmonella, a bacterial poison.

Stewart Parnell was the owner and president of the Peanut Corporation of America. It operated 3 plants in Georgia, Virginia and Texas. They made peanut products – like peanuts, peanut butter, and roasted peanuts – that were in turn sold to food production companies like Kellogg’s and Nestle, who would rebrand them, and make other things like peanut butter cookies and crackers for sale in stores in every state. In the company’s final year of operation in it generated some $30 million in sales.

A countrywide salmonella outbreak was detected in 2008 and 2009. People were dying, and hundreds were being hospitalized. The outbreak was traced to the 3 PCA production plants. Stewart Parnell and his crew stand criminally accused of causing that outbreak because, the DOJ says, they engaged in a 6 year pattern of conduct where they knowingly shipped out poisoned product but nonetheless persisted in doing so – and this is significant – for the money.

Here’s how they did it. When Parnell got lab tests back saying his products were positive for salmonella he’d ship them out anyway. Along with the shipment he’d send fabricated Certificates of Analysis that said the product was fine. In other cases he’d just not bother getting his food tested and again ship the food out with a false COA. If he was ever confronted with positive salmonella results from companies he sold to that did their own testing, he would simply lie to them, claiming the test results at his end were always negative.

We learned this largely from Parnell himself, from a series of internal emails he wrote that were uncovered by investigators. For example, when challenged by a corporate customer who received salmonella tainted food from PCA, Parnell wrote to him saying, “I am dumbfounded by what you have found. It is the first time in my over 26 years in the peanut business that I have ever seen any instance of this. We run Certificates of Analysis EVERY DAY with tests for Salmonella and have not found any instances of any, even traces of a salmonella problem.” (Emphasis in original.) The trouble with Parnell’s statement is that it’s flatly contradicted by an email from his company’s quality assurance manager who writes, “We have a problem with … Salmonella at least every other week if not every week.”

And when told that salmonella testing results were not yet available and that shipment of a customer’s product would therefore be delayed Parnell wrote, “Shit, just ship it.”

Why lie? Why “just ship it,” knowing full well that “it” is poisoned food? “These lab tests and COA’s are fucking breaking me/us,” he wrote to the company operations manager. Similarly, in another email complaining that the positive salmonella test results were costing his company money he said, “… [the test results are] costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice.”

Back in 2009, some 4 years before criminal charges were filed against Parnell, he was summoned to appear before a House of Congress oversight committee that was investigating the salmonella outbreaks. After hearing detailed testimony from family members who lost loved ones, committee chairman Michigan Congressman Bert Stupak, reflecting the feeling in the packed chamber, put this question to Parnell: “So the food poisoning of people, is that just a cost of doing business for your company?”

Stewart Parnell, who remained seated, and using the law as a shield, responded: “Mr. Chairmen and members of the committee, on the advice of my counsel I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution.”

 

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