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Does the punishment fit the crime? Consumers say absolutely, but defense attorneys for Stewart Parnell say no. The former CEO of a peanut company has been sentenced to 28 years in prison for producing and selling food that caused a deadly salmonella outbreak. Parnell could spend the rest of his life behind bars. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Seven years ago, hundreds of people across the country got sick from eating peanut products that were contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Nine people died. Investigators traced the contaminated food to a factory in Georgia. There have been bigger outbreaks of disease because of tainted food. What set this case apart were the emails that investigators found at the company that ran the factory, the Peanut Corporation of America. Some of those emails came from the company's CEO, Stewart Parnell.
BILL MARLER: Stewart Parnell absolutely knew that they were shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter. They knew it, and they covered it up.
CHARLES: That's Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who represented some of the victims. Before and during the outbreak, company executives assured customers that their products were free of salmonella when no tests had been done. And when tests did turn up salmonella, company executives sometimes just retested that batch, and when it came up clean, they sold it. In one memorable exchange when Parnell was told that a shipment was delayed while waiting for salmonella tests, he wrote back, just ship it. Last year, Parnell and two other executives at the company were convicted of criminal charges that included fraud, obstruction of justice and selling adulterated food. These were almost unprecedented charges for a food company. And Bill Marler says executives in other companies are paying close attention.
MARLER: The arrest of Stewart Parnell, his conviction on these felony counts and his sentence has put a very big chill through the board rooms of corporate America.
CHARLES: At yesterday's sentencing hearing, relatives of some of the victims confronted Parnell with stories of their suffering. Parnell, for his part, asked for forgiveness and mercy and said he never intended anyone any harm. His daughter said he sometimes brought his company's peanut butter home for his family to eat. Along with Parnell's 28-year sentence, his brother Michael Parnell got 20 years and another company executive was sentenced to five years in prison. All of these sentences are the harshest ever imposed in connection with an outbreak of foodborne illness.
In some other recent cases, companies sold contaminated eggs and cantaloupes, also linked to multiple deaths. Executives in those companies were sentenced to probation and a few months in prison. Stewart Parnell's lawyers have indicated they will file an appeal. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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