No Comment From the Peanut Gallery

The lengthy prison sentence imposed on the CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (“PCA”) reflects a broader movement by the three branches of government to address the serious food safety problems faced by the United States today.

On September 21, 2015 Stewart Parnell, the CEO of PCA, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands to 28 years in prison. [1] This sentence was handed down after he was convicted of knowingly shipping out peanut products contaminated with salmonella in 2008, a decision that caused the deaths of nine people and sickened 714 others. [2] The 28-year prison term is a virtual life sentence for Parnell who was 61 years old at the time of his sentencing, and it is the first time a corporate executive has been convicted of federal felony charges related to food poisoning. [3] Parnell’s brother Michael also faces a lengthy prison term, 20 years, after being convicted of knowingly shipping the peanut products with false certificates of analysis. [4]

These sentences come in the wake of a foodborne illness epidemic that has recently plagued America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) estimates that 47.8 million Americans contract a foodborne illness annually, resulting in 127,839 hospitalizations and 3,037 deaths. [5] These staggering numbers, as well as the public’s increasing awareness of them through mass recalls of food products, have put pressure on all three branches of government to address the problem of foodborne illness in both a retroactive and proactive manner.

President Obama and Congress both responded shortly after the PCA recall. In 2009 President Obama created the Food Safety Working Group, which developed recommendations about how to upgrade the food safety system. [6] However, the larger and further reaching move came from Congress with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The bill was introduced in the House in 2009 by Ohio Representative Betty Sutton. [7] According to Representative Sutton, the purpose of the bill was to “help ensure that the food in our children’s lunch boxes and on our family’s dinner table is safe to eat.” [8] The FSMA shifts the focus of food safety regulation from response to prevention by granting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) numerous new powers, including the ability to issue a mandatory recall on food products deemed unsafe to the public. [9] It also imposes significant responsibility on farmers, food producers, and food importers to prevent contamination by requiring each facility to implement a written plan that evaluates their food safety hazards, specifies controls that will minimize those hazards, elaborates on how the facility will monitor the controls, and details how the facility will address problems that arise. [10] President Obama praised the passage of the FSMA [11] and signed it into law on January 4, 2011. [12] As the first major piece of federal legislation to address food safety issues since 1938 [13], the FSMA reflects the urgency felt by the legislative and executive branches to address the massive problem of food safety.

When viewed in this context, the sentencing of the Parnell brothers in the PCA case can be seen as the judicial branch’s attempt to challenge the food industry’s business-as-usual approach to food safety. The 28 and 20 year prison sentences send a firm and clear message to food manufacturers that they will be held responsible for any injuries caused by intentional disregard for the safety of their consumers. At the sentencing hearing, Judge Sands noted, “We place faith that no one would intentionally ship products to market that are contaminated… Consumers are at the mercy of food producers for the safety of the products.” [14] Judge Sands’ statements highlight the immense hold food manufacturers have on consumers. Consumers cannot determine if their food is safe; they completely rely on the diligence of the manufacturer as far as foodborne pathogens are concerned. Ernest Clark, grandson of one of the decedents, illustrated this sometimes-crippling reliance during his testimony: “My grandmother suffered the maximum penalty anyone can pay for eating a food she loved.” [15] Judge Sands went on to state, “These acts were driven by profit and the protection of profit… thus greed,” [16] indicating that taking shortcuts on food safety and risking consumer lives for monetary gain would not be tolerated by the court. The hefty sentences paired with the judge’s reasoning illustrate his efforts to deter this behavior by other food manufacturers in the future.

The recent actions taken by all three branches of American government regarding food safety demonstrate that they are taking the issue seriously and that they recognize the grave consequences that can result from not regulating food safety practices. By continuing to focus on prevention through legislation and deterrence through the courts, the government can continue to effectively address this harrowing issue.

 


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] Darin Detwiler, Bearing Witness to Justice at the PCA Sentencing, Food Safety News (Sept. 23, 2015), http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2015/09/bearing-witness-to-justice-at-the-pca-sentencing/#.VqGFIjZhcWk

 

[2] Moni Basu, 28 years for salmonella: Peanut exec gets groundbreaking sentence, CNN (Sept. 22, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/21/us/salmonella-peanut-exec-sentenced/

 

[3] Id.

 

[4] Id.

 

[5] Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Jan. 8, 2014), http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html

 

[6] President’s Food Safety Working Group: Delivering Results, Food Safety Working Group (Jan. 22, 2016) http://www.foodsafetyworkinggroup.gov/FSWG_Fact_Sheet.pdf

 

[7] Rep. Sutton and House Approve Food Safety Bill, U.S. Representative Betty Sutton (Dec. 8, 2010) http://web.archive.org/web/20121220203546/http://sutton.house.gov/press-releases/rep-sutton-and-house-approve-food-safety-bill/

 

[8] Id.

 

[9] FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, 21 U.S.C. §2201 (2011)

 

[10] Id.

 

[11] President Obama Applauds Senate Passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, The White House Office of the Press Secretary (Nov. 30, 2010) https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/11/30/president-obama-applauds-senate-passage-food-safety-modernization-act

 

[12] FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, 21 U.S.C. §2201 (2011)

 

[13] Lyndsey Layton, House Approves Food-Safety Bill; Law Would Expand FDA’s Power, Washington Post (July 31, 2009), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/30/AR2009073003271.html?hpid=topnews

 

[14] Detwiler, Bearing Witness to Justice at the PCA Sentencing, Food Safety News (Sept. 23, 2015)

 

[15] Id.

 

[16] Id.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *