The top-ranking executive of a peanut company was sentenced to 28 years in prison Monday for his role in a salmonella outbreak in 2009 that killed nine people - three of them in Minnesota - and sickened hundreds more, ABC News reports.
Stewart Parnell, 61, the former owner of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America, was sentenced in federal court in Georgia along with two other defendants.
Parnell faced a maximum sentence of 803 years in prison.
His brother Michael, a food broker, was sentenced to 20 years, and a plant manager, Mary Wilkerson, received a five-year sentence.
The case is significant because it's believed to be the first time a corporate executive has been held criminally accountable for a company distributing tainted food.
Parnell was convicted a year ago on 70 criminal counts for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter from the PCA plant in Blakely, Georgia, to Kellogg’s and other customers who used it in products from packaged crackers to pet food.
The jury also found Parnell and his brother guilty of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.
Members of Parnell's family described him as a good man and a doting grandfather, and asked the judge to be lenient. But several family members and victims of the poisoning argued for a stiff sentence.
Jeff Almer of Minnesota spoke at the hearing on behalf of his 72-year-old mother Shirley of Perham, who died in late 2008 after eating a piece of toast with peanut butter on it. He told the court how his mother, a cancer survivor, became deathly ill from the salmonella, and said Parnell deserves a long prison sentence.
“I really struggled with trying to forgive this guy, because he claims no responsibility whatsoever," said Almer, according to the Washington Post. "We’ve gone past the point of forgiveness.”
Federal investigators found filthy conditions at the Georgia peanut plant, including mold, insect infestations, and a leaky roof. Prosecutors argued that Parnell and his company cut corners on safety to maximize profits.
They told jurors that when laboratory tests detected salmonella in their peanut butter, the company covered up the results and chose to ship the product to buyers anyway.
Two other Minnesotans also died from eating the tainted peanut butter: Clifford Tousignant, 78, originally of Duluth; and Doris Flatgard, 87, of Brainerd.
The outbreak also led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, and cost PCA's customers an estimated $144 million, according to court documents. The company closed down after the outbreak.
Salmonella is a type of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness. Most people recover within a few days, but those with weaker immune systems can be more vulnerable. Most of those who died in the outbreak were older than 70 or had other health conditions.
Earlier this month, another salmonella outbreak was traced back to cucumbers that were distributed by a California produce company to restaurants and grocery stores nationwide, including Minnesota.