A former peanut company executive was sentenced Monday to 28 years in prison — the stiffest punishment ever handed out to a producer in a foodborne illness case — for his role in a deadly salmonella outbreak that killed three elderly Minnesotans.
The outbreak in 2008 and 2009, which originated from a Georgia peanut plant, killed nine Americans altogether and sickened more than 700.
It also triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Evidence against former Peanut Company of America owner Stewart Parnell showed he and other employees knowingly shipped tainted products.
Federal prosectors in Georgia had recommended life imprisonment for Parnell.
"I thought he got off a little light, and I would have liked to have seen more," said Louis Tousignant, whose father Clifford, from Duluth, died at age 78 after eating tainted peanut butter tied to the outbreak. "But hopefully this sentence is a statement to others who are running businesses."
Barbara Flatgard, whose 87-year-old mother, Doris Flatgard of Bergen, Minn., also died from the outbreak, concurred that U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands' sentence should serve as a warning to food industry executives.
"If people are in the position Parnell was in, maybe they will make a different decision," Flatgard said. "He's got a lot of years to spend in jail, and it won't be easy for him."
Before he was sentenced, Parnell listened from his courtroom seat as nine victims testified about the terror and grief caused by peanut butter traced to the company's plant in southwest Georgia.
Minnesotan Jeff Almer told the court his 72-year-old mother, Shirley Mae Almer of Perham, was battling back from cancer when she died in December 2008 after eating peanut butter from Parnell's plant. "You took my mom," Almer said. "You kicked her right off the cliff."
Jacob Hurley of Oregon was just 3 when he was stricken by salmonella from peanut butter crackers that left him vomiting and rushing to the toilet for nearly two weeks. Now 10 years old, he told the judge, "I think it's OK for [Parnell] to spend the rest of his life in prison."
Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina. All three of the Minnesota deaths involved residents of Good Samaritan Homes in Brainerd.
The Minnesota Department of Health played a critical role in tracing the salmonella outbreak to Peanut Corporation of America, which is now defunct.
When a jury convicted Parnell and two co-defendants a year ago, experts said it was the first time American food processors had stood trial in a food-poisoning case.
A federal jury convicted Parnell, 61, of knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter and of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella. Judge Sands estimated Parnell faced up to 803 years in prison for his crimes.
"These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits notwithstanding the known risks" from salmonella, the judge said. "This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed."
Federal investigators found a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents at the plant, all ingredients for brewing salmonella. They also uncovered e-mails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway. Other batches were never tested at all but got shipped with fake lab records saying salmonella screenings were negative.
E-mails prosecutors presented at trial showed that Parnell once directed employees to "turn them loose" after samples of peanuts tested positive for salmonella and then were cleared in another test. Several months before the outbreak, when a final lab test found salmonella, Parnell expressed concern to a Georgia plant manager, writing in an Oct. 6, 2008, e-mail that the delay "is costing us huge $$$$$."
Parnell, who didn't testify during his trial and stayed silent years ago when called before a congressional hearing, apologized to the courtroom full of victims and their relatives.
Speaking in a shaky voice and wearing a rumpled white shirt and khaki pants, Parnell acknowledged problems at his peanut plant, but he never addressed the e-mails and company records.
"I am personally embarrassed, humiliated and morally disgraced by what happened," he said, acknowledging that some might see his apology as coming too late.
"It's been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family," Parnell told the judge. "All I can do is come before you and ask for forgiveness from you and the people back here. I'm truly sorry for what happened."
His brother, Michael Parnell, and the plant's former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, were also convicted and face lesser sentences.
Members of Parnell's family pleaded for leniency. His mother, Zelda Parnell, told the judge both of her sons "have suffered for years."
"They lost their income, all their material things and worst of all their pride," she said.
Stewart Parnell buried his face in the palm of his hands when his daughter, Grey Adams, told the judge that "my dad's heart is genuine."
"My dad is not greedy — he never gave himself a raise and he never gave himself a bonus," said Adams, who worked with her father at Peanut Corporation but was not charged. "My dad and everyone in our family are profoundly sorry for the harm that was caused."
Staff writer Mike Hughlett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.