Peanut Corporation of America Former Officials and Broker Convicted on Criminal Charges Related to Salmonella-Tainted Peanut Products
WASHINGTON—A federal jury returned guilty verdicts against two former officials of and one broker for the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the Department of Justice announced today.
Stewart Parnell, of Lynchburg, Virginia, and Michael Parnell, of Midlothian, Virginia, were convicted of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and the introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce. Steward Parnell was also convicted of the introduction of adulterated food. Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson, of Edison, Georgia, were also convicted of obstruction of justice. The convictions all arise from the unlawful sale of salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products.
Expert evidence at trial showed that tainted food led to an outbreak in 2009 with more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on epidemiological projections, that number translates to more than 22,000 total cases.
The verdicts followed a seven-week trial in the Middle District of Georgia during which prosecutors presented the testimony of 45 witnesses and introduced 1,001 documents into evidence. Among those who testified were Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, both of Blakely, Georgia, both former operations managers for PCA and both of whom earlier pleaded guilty to several crimes for their roles in the sale of the salmonella-tainted food by PCA.
“As this verdict confirms, the salmonella outbreak that caused nationwide panic five years ago was a direct result of the actions of these individuals,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “This verdict demonstrates that the Department of Justice will never waver in our pursuit of those who break our laws and compromise the safety of America’s food supply for financial gain. All Americans must be able to rely on the safety of the food they purchase. And any individual or company who puts the health of consumers at risk by criminally selling tainted food will be caught, prosecuted, and held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
The government presented evidence at trial to establish that Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell—with Lightsey and Kilgore—participated in several schemes by which they defrauded PCA customers and jeopardized the quality and purity of their peanut products. Specifically, the government presented evidence that defendants misled customers about the presence of salmonella in their products. For example, as the evidence demonstrated, the Parnells, Lightsey and Kilgore fabricated certificates of analysis (COAs) accompanying various shipments of peanut products. COAs are documents that summarize laboratory results, including test results concerning the presence or absence of pathogens in food. According to the evidence, on several occasions, the Parnells, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to fabricate COAs that stated that the food at issue was free of pathogens when in fact there had been no testing of the food or tests had revealed the presence of pathogens.
The government also presented evidence that when FDA officials visited the plant to investigate the outbreak, Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave untrue or misleading answers to questions posed by those officials.
“We are gratified by the jury’s verdict,” said Joyce R. Branda, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the 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.”
“In this great country, we take for granted the safety of the food we feed our families,” said U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore of the Middle District of Georgia. “We expect, and rightfully so, for food suppliers to follow the rules and regulations, and to never sacrifice public safety for profits. In this case, these defendants were willing to put tainted food onto the shelves of stores across the country. After this trial, it should be clear that individual accountability, not just corporate responsibility, for criminal conduct that puts public safety in jeopardy is now the norm in the eyes of the Department of Justice. And while the evidence over the last few weeks has focused on the criminal acts of these defendants, let’s not forget that there were real victims in this case who became ill and suffered greatly because making money, at least to the defendants, was more important than making sure that the peanut products they put into the marketplace were safe.”
Attorney General Holder, Acting Assistant Attorney General Branda and U.S. Attorney Moore thanked the jury for its service, and, especially, for its careful consideration of the evidence.
In all, the jury convicted Stewart Parnell of multiple counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, the sale of misbranded food, the sale of adulterated food, and obstruction; Michael Parnell of multiple counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and the sale of misbranded food; and Mary Wilkerson of one count of obstruction. The judge has not yet set a date for sentencing.
The case was prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Patrick Hearn and Mary M. Englehart of the Consumer Protection Branch of the Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Dasher of the Middle District of Georgia.