Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, who knowingly sold truckloads of salmonella-tainted peanut butter that resulted in nine deaths and 700 illnesses. (Photo: Getty Images)
Prosecutors are recommending a sentence of life in prison for a peanut executive convicted in a deadly salmonella-poisoning case.
Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, was convicted last September of knowingly selling truckloads of peanut butter contaminated with salmonella from his plant in Georgia to food processors.
The recommendation for his sentencing, which a lawyer for one of the victims called “unprecedented,” was revealed on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports.
The contaminated peanut butter caused a salmonella outbreak that spanned 46 states and lasted from 2008 to 2009, sparking a massive recall by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It killed nine people and left more than 700 ill.
After a seven-week trial, Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, were both charged with 76 federal counts linked to intentionally shipping peanut products that tested positive for salmonella, CNN reports.
During the trial, federal prosecutors presented more than 1,000 documents, including a March 2007 email from Stewart Parnell to a plant manager about the tainted peanut butter. “Just ship it,” he wrote in the message.
The indictment was the first federal felony conviction for a company executive in a food safety case, making it a landmark trial.
This case is disturbing because salmonella is so potentially dangerous, says food safety specialist Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor at North Carolina State University. “Not everybody who eats salmonella is going to get sick, but the issue is that you don’t know if you’re going to get sick,” he tells Yahoo Health. “That’s why we really don’t want to have salmonella in our food.”
Salmonella causes an estimated 1 million illnesses annually, according to the CDC. The bacterium is also responsible for 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths each year.
Salmonella is commonly found in raw animal products such as eggs, meat, and unpasteurized dairy products, but it can also show up in peanut butter. The peanut roasting process can kill the salmonella, but it won’t always happen.
Research published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that peanut butter’s high carbohydrate content and low temperature resulted in higher levels of survival of salmonella during storage. So, if salmonella gets into your peanut butter, it’s probably going to stay there.
Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours later, and the symptoms can last up to a week, the CDC reports. But the diarrhea can become so severe that a person needs to be hospitalized. It can even spread from the intestines to the blood stream and then to other parts of your body, where it can become deadly.
While most people with salmonella seemingly get over it in a few days, the negative symptoms of salmonella can last beyond a week. It can also cause reactive arthritis, a type of joint pain that can last for years and even lead to chronic arthritis, Chapman says. And, unfortunately, antibiotic treatment that people may undergo for salmonella poisoning won’t stop the arthritis from developing.
So, while Parnell’s case is unprecedented, the proposed punishment does seem to fit the crime. “We saw through the trial that some really egregious things happened,” says Chapman. “It’s important that people who have knowingly done things to negatively effect other people’s health are held responsible and accountable — it sounds like that’s being done here.”
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