A former peanut company executive was sentenced today 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 killed nine Americans and sickened hundreds more, and triggered one of the largest food recalls in US history. Before he was sentenced, former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell listened from his courtroom seat as nine victims testified about the terror and grief caused by peanut butter traced to the company's plant in southwest Georgia. One of the victims 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. "I think it's OK for him to spend the rest of his life in prison," Jacob told the judge.
When a jury convicted Parnell and two co-defendants a year ago, experts said it was the first time American food processors had stood trial in a food-poisoning case. A federal jury convicted Parnell, 61, of knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter and of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella. Judge W. Louis Sands estimated Parnell faced up to 803 years in prison for his crimes. 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. "I am personally embarrassed, humiliated and morally disgraced by what happened," he said in a shaky voice. "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." Two other execs were also sentenced. (Read more salmonella stories.)