The owner of a peanut butter firm convicted of having a role in a huge salmonella outbreak that killed nine people — including three in Minnesota — is set to be sentenced Monday in Georgia to a potentially long prison term.
Jeff Almer of Savage will be there, making sure his mother’s death from eating tainted peanut butter won’t be forgotten.
In a rare instance of a corporate executive being tried over a food safety debacle, Stewart Parnell and two others were convicted a year ago on numerous counts of conspiracy and fraud related to shipping contaminated peanut butter that sickened more than 700 people in 2008 and 2009. Almer’s mother, Shirley Mae Almer of Perham, Minn., was one of the victims.
Parnell and two other defendants connected with Peanut Butter Corporation of America (PCA) are scheduled for sentencing Monday. Prosecutors have recommended a life sentence for Parnell; 17 to 23 years for his brother Michael Parnell; and at least eight years for the company’s quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson.
Those would by far be the stiffest sentences ever linked to a U.S. food outbreak. “It’s unprecedented,” said Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis lawyer and veteran food safety litigator.
“The crimes are so egregious that [Parnell] will be hit hard,” Almer said. Almer and his sister, Ginger Lorentz of Brainerd, are expected to give statements before the court, though Parnell’s lawyers have argued that food outbreak victims are not crime victims under federal law. Shirley Mae Almer, 72, died after eating peanut butter toast.
The outbreak linked to the Georgia plant owned by now-defunct PCA was one of the largest U.S. salmonella outbreaks and also caused one of the largest food recalls. It helped spur the passage of a tougher food safety law in 2011, which Jeff Almer and other relatives of Minnesota victims helped lobby for.
Federal food safety regulators concluded Parnell and the other defendants knowingly let safety take a back seat to profits.
They found evidence of bugs and rodents and a peanut roaster that workers failed to ensure was heated enough to kill salmonella bacteria. They concluded that the company faked microbiological tests to conceal positive laboratory tests for salmonella.
Company e-mails dug up by investigators suggested that Stewart Parnell and the other defendants knew the plant was shipping tainted products. “Just ship it,” Parnell said in one e-mail. “I cannot afford to [lose] another customer.”
While it’s far from clear whether Parnell will get life behind bars, food litigation experts don’t expect him to get off lightly. “He is going to get serious time, not a slap on the wrist,” said Pritzker, whose firm represented consumers stricken in the PCA outbreak.
“Plenty of companies have been cavalier [about food safety], but nobody has put it in writing like [Parnell],” Pritzker said.
Almer has doggedly pursued the Parnell case and food safety issues generally since his mother’s death in 2008. He’s testified before Congress and flown around the country telling his mother’s story and pushing for stronger food safety regulations.
Jeff Almer and Lorentz will be joined by two other siblings at the sentencing hearing in Albany, Ga.
“I would like to say [the sentencing] would give me a sense of closure and that would just be it,” Almer said. “But the reality is my mom is still gone.”