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Peanut executive faces possible life sentence for salmonella outbreak

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The top-ranking executive of a peanut company could be sentenced to prison for decades Monday, after being convicted of crimes involving a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people - three of them in Minnesota - and sickened hundreds more.

The Associated Press reports Stewart Parnell, 61, the former owner of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America, is due in federal court in Georgia along with two other defendants - his brother and one of the plant managers - to be sentenced.

Parnell was convicted a year ago of 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, food broker Michael Parnell, guilty of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.

Food safety advocates consider Parnell’s conviction a landmark case because it’s the first time a corporate executive has been held accountable for a company distributing tainted food.

In a court filing late last week, the federal judge overseeing the case mentioned the possible prison sentence for Stewart Parnell - 803 years, based on the number of people who became ill and the fact that the outbreak cost PCA's customers more than $140 million, according to the Associated Press.

The judge has the authority to impose a lighter sentence if he chooses. A life term for Parnell would be the harshest sentence ever handed down for such a case.

Minnesota victims

The 2009 salmonella outbreak involving tainted peanut butter sickened more than 714 people and caused nine deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and led to one of the country’s largest food recalls.

Federal investigators found filthy conditions at the 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.

Three of those who died from eating the tainted peanut butter were from Minnesota: Shirley Almer, 72, of Perham; Clifford Tousignant, 78, originally of Duluth; and Doris Flatgard, 87, of Brainerd.

Almer's son Jeff has become an outspoken food safety advocate since his mother's death in December 2008. He told CNN he plans to be at the sentencing hearing Monday to speak on behalf of his mother, a cancer survivor who became ill and died after eating a piece of peanut butter toast.

Jeff Almer said he wants to look Parnell and the others in the eyes and tell them about his mother; "what they took away and what they will never be able to take away," according to CNN.

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.

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