ALBANY, Ga. -- A former peanut company executive was sentenced Monday to 28 years in prison for his role in a deadly salmonella outbreak, the stiffest punishment ever handed out to a producer in a foodborne illness case.
The outbreak in 2008 and 2009 was blamed for nine deaths and sickened hundreds more, and triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
Before he was sentenced, former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell listened as nine victims testified about the terror and grief caused by tainted peanut butter traced to the company's plant in southwest Georgia. Hours later, they left the courthouse applauding the sentence.
"It should be enough to send a message to the other manufacturers that this is not going to be tolerated anymore and they had better inspect their food," said Randy Napier, whose 80-year-old mother died from salmonella poisoning after eating peanut butter from Parnell's plant.
Experts say the trial of Parnell and two co-defendants a year ago marked the first time U.S. food producers stood trial on criminal charges in a food-poisoning case. The company went bankrupt following the salmonella outbreak.
U.S. Attorney Michael Moore of Georgia's Middle District, whose office prosecuted the case, called it "a landmark with implications that will resonate not just in the food industry but in corporate boardrooms across the country."
A federal jury convicted Parnell, 61, of knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter and of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.
Tom Bondurant, one of Parnell's defense attorneys, said 28 years prison would amount to a life sentence for his client. He plans to appeal the conviction and sentence.
"If you compare it with other food-safety criminal cases, it's tremendously out of line," Bondurant said.
In April, two former egg executives in Iowa were sentenced to three months in jail for their role in a 2010 salmonella outbreak linked to more than 1,900 illnesses.
One of the victims in the Peanut Corporation outbreak was 10-year-old Jacob Hurley, who was just 3 when he was stricken by salmonella from peanut butter crackers that left him vomiting and rushing to the toilet for nearly two weeks.
Judge W. Louis Sands estimated Parnell faced up to 803 years in prison for his crimes, but said a punishment that severe would have been "inappropriate." He didn't elaborate.
"These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits notwithstanding the known risks" from salmonella, the judge said. "This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed."
Federal investigators found a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents at the plant, all ingredients for brewing salmonella. They also uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway. Other batches were never tested at all, but got shipped with fake lab records saying salmonella screenings were negative.
Emails prosecutors presented at trial showed that Parnell once directed employees to "turn them loose" after samples of peanuts tested positive for salmonella and then were cleared in another test. Several months before the outbreak, when a final lab test found salmonella, Parnell expressed concern to a Georgia plant manager, writing in an Oct. 6, 2008, email that the delay "is costing us huge $$$$$."
Parnell, who didn't testify during his trial and stayed silent years ago when called before a congressional hearing, apologized to the courtroom full of victims and their relatives.
Speaking in a shaky voice and wearing a rumpled white shirt and khaki pants, Parnell acknowledged problems at his peanut plant, but he never addressed the emails and company records.
"I am personally embarrassed, humiliated and morally disgraced by what happened," he said, acknowledging that some might see his apology as coming too late.
"It's been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family," Parnell told the judge. "All I can do is come before you and ask for forgiveness from you and the people back here. I'm truly sorry for what happened."
His brother, Michael Parnell, and the plant's former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, were also convicted. Michael Parnell was sentenced to 20 years and Wilkerson five.
Stewart Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with killing or sickening anybody. Instead, federal prosecutors charged them with defrauding customers who used Peanut Corporation's peanuts and peanut butter in products from snack crackers to pet food. Parnell was convicted of 67 criminal counts including conspiracy, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.
Members of Parnell's family pleaded for leniency. His mother, Zelda Parnell, told the judge both of her sons "have suffered for years."
"They lost their income, all their material things and worst of all their pride," she said.
Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.