The case against Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corp. of America, represents one of the most wide-ranging and forceful U.S. government actions against a top corporate executive over unsafe food. Nine people died and more than 700 were sickened, including 45 in Minnesota, during the nationwide outbreak, which Minnesota health investigators played a key role in exposing.
Parnell, 58, of Lynchburg, Va., and three former employees of Peanut Corp. of America — including his brother Michael Parnell — were indicted on 76 federal counts of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and the introduction of adulterated, misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud. The charges carry maximum penalties of three to 20 years.
“We are thrilled,” said Barbara Flatgard of Brainerd, whose mother, Doris Flatgard, 87, was the third Minnesotan to die in the outbreak in January 2009. She had been in a Brainerd nursing home for only 2½ weeks when she became sick and died, her daughter said.
The indictment alleges that Stewart Parnell long showed an utter disregard for food safety, citing examples as early as 2004 of peanut products that weren’t recalled after contamination was discovered. Once, when Parnell was told that salmonella tests weren’t available for one shipment, he replied via e-mail: “shit, just ship it. I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer,” the indictment said.
In a statement, Parnell’s attorneys, Bill Gust and Tom Bondurant of Roanoke, Va., promised a vigorous defense, saying, “As this matter progresses it will become clear that Mr. Parnell never intentionally shipped or intentionally caused to be shipped any tainted food products.”
Five months after her mother’s death, Barbara Flatgard lost her father, John. “He never could understand how peanut butter could do something like this and how someone could be so dishonest to not care about the health of other people,” she said.
Marshall Tousignant of Brainerd, whose 78-year-old father, Clifford Tousignant, also died in a Brainerd nursing home after eating contaminated peanut butter, said he had worried that Parnell would never be charged.
“I was concerned he was going to get off scot-free,” said Tousignant, a disabled war veteran who visited his father daily and watched him get sick before he died.
Tousignant said he would have preferred to see Parnell charged with manslaughter, but will be satisfied if he at least goes to prison.
“The guy knew it — that is the thing that gets me,” he said. “It isn’t that he intentionally tried to kill people. It all comes down to money. He knew he had a bad product and didn’t care who he sold it to.”
He said his father died “a miserable death,” unable to rush from his bed to the bathroom as “everything he ate went right through him.” Not realizing the peanut butter was sickening him, it was about the only thing he ate, his son said.
Jeff Almer of Savage, whose mother, Shirley Mae Almer, 72, was the first of the Brainerd nursing home residents to die, said the indictments brought tears and elation.
“I have never wanted something to happen more in my life,” said Almer, who in 2009 testified in Congress in support of food safety legislation that eventually passed. “It is a very emotional day.”
If Parnell goes to prison, it will offer Almer “a modicum of justice,” although he said he considers the man a murderer. “Whatever time he serves, I don’t think it is going to equal what he did to people’s lives.”
Besides the grand jury charges against Parnell and his co-workers, federal prosecutors also charged a fifth man who pleaded guilty to fraud and adulterated and misbranded food charges. Such pleas usually are a sign that someone is cooperating with the government.
Allegations in indictment
The 76-count indictment by a federal grand jury in Georgia is rife with allegations of intentional misbehavior by Parnell and his associates.
They allegedly shipped peanut products before safety test results were received, and when those results came back positive for salmonella, customers weren’t told. Batches that tested positive for salmonella or other problems were knowingly shipped to customers, the charges say. Products that tested positive for salmonella were retested, and when the result was negative, they too were shipped, according to the indictment.
Although Peanut Corp. of America boasted to customers about its “remarkable food safety record,” roof leaks weren’t adequately repaired and proper sanitation procedures weren’t followed, nor were processes in place to prevent rodent and insect infestation, the indictment said.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food-safety cases, called the indictment “unprecedented,” one that should send a message to every food executive. “This is the first time I have ever seen such a sweeping felony criminal indictment.”
Marler represented Minnesota victims of the Peanut Corp. outbreak and their families, as did Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis-based food-safety attorney. Pritzker called the case against Parnell “a sea change, frankly. Hopefully, this represents a change in attitude in terms of enforcement.”
Dr. Kirk Smith, who played a key role in exposing the outbreak as head of the state Health Department’s foodborne disease investigation unit, said: “If this sort of thing prevents other businesses from getting around the food-safety regulations, great.” He said no other outbreak he has investigated in 17 years has led to federal criminal charges.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who authored food-safety legislation in the wake of the deaths, said, “The ... decision to indict will never bring back their loved ones but will give them some sense that there is justice ahead for these criminal acts. People like Shirley Almer ... did not deserve to die for eating a piece of peanut butter toast.”
Traced to Georgia plant
The Peanut Corp. investigation began in 2009, after investigators traced a national outbreak of salmonella to the company’s plant in Blakely, Ga., where it roasted peanuts and produced other products, including peanut butter.
Minnesota health and agriculture officials played a key role by checking menus and interviewing people associated with Brainerd nursing homes and testing tubs of peanut butter from the homes.
Over the next few months, 4,000 products were recalled because they contained Peanut Corp. ingredients. Brands and food companies ranged from Cliff bars to Kellogg to Trader Joe’s to Kroger. In 2009, Peanut Corp. filed for bankruptcy and shut down.
By late March 2009, 714 confirmed illnesses had been linked to the outbreak in 46 states, with 45 cases in Minnesota, which involved 17 hospitalizations and three deaths.
“This was one of the biggest foodborne outbreaks we have ever worked on,” Smith said.