ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — A federal jury convicted three people Friday in connection with an outbreak of salmonella poisoning five years ago that sickened hundreds of people and was linked to a number of deaths.
Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was found guilty of conspiracy and other charges after a seven-week trial in Albany, Georgia.
Parnell, his brother, Michael Parnell, and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson have been on trial since Aug. 1 on charges stemming from the 2008-2009 outbreak that sickened 714 people and was linked to nine deaths. Michael Parnell was found guilty of conspiracy. Wilkerson was found guilty of obstruction.
Conspiracy charges and the obstruction charges each carry up to 20 years in prison. Sentencing will take place at a later date.
Experts say it's the first time corporate executives and plant workers have gone to trial in a food poisoning case. The Georgia plant was shut down in 2009 and Peanut Corporation went bankrupt.
The defendants were charged last year in a 76-count indictment that accused the Parnell brothers of shipping tainted peanuts and peanut butter and covering up lab tests showing positive results for salmonella. Peanut Corporation's products were used as ingredients in crackers and other snacks.
The company's plant in Blakely was shut down after being identified as the origin point of the salmonella outbreak in 2009. Federal inspectors also found roof leaks, evidence of bugs and rodents, and a peanut roaster that workers failed to ensure was heated to the proper temperature to kill salmonella. Investigators say they also uncovered a system the plant used to fake microbiological test results required by customers so the company could conceal positive lab tests for salmonella contamination.
The outbreak prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 714 people in 46 states were infected and nine people died — three in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.
Michael Parnell was in charge of selling tanker trucks filled with peanut paste to Kellogg's, which required 40,000 pounds of paste from Peanut Corporation twice a week. Prosecutors said the Parnell brothers used fake lab results so that wait times for real tests wouldn't slow down their hectic shipping schedule.
After being told a shipment faced delay while waiting on lab results, Stewart Parnell wrote an email referenced several times by prosecutors in the case that read: "Just ship it. I cannot afford to (lose) another customer."
Stacks of emails, shipping records, lab test reports and other documents were introduced as evidence by prosecutors. Two former plant managers — Sammy Lightsey and Danny Kilgore — testified against their former boss and his co-defendants as part of a plea deal reached with prosecutors.
Lightsey testified that he once confronted Michael Parnell about the fake lab tests but allowed the practice to continue after he was told to back down.
"In my mind, I wasn't intentionally hurting anyone," Lightsey testified last month.
Stewart Parnell's lawyers insisted he was unaware of the scale of the Georgia plant's salmonella problem as he tried to manage the company from his home office in Virginia. And attorneys for Michael Parnell noted he didn't work for Peanut Corporation and said he should be considered a customer rather than a conspirator, a middle-man who unwittingly bought tainted peanut paste for Kellogg's. Wilkerson's attorney insisted she cooperated with authorities as best she could.