Last Friday, I spoke at the Government Accountability Project Food Integrity Campaign conference. During the lunch break, food safety attorney and advocate Bill Marler hosted a press event with 10 family members of victims of the 2009 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter. Hundreds of companies recalled thousands of products made with peanuts from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). At least 700 people became ill with salmonella infections after eating those products, and nine died.
Earlier that day, Marler and his clients had met with attorneys from the Department of Justice to demand that criminal charges be brought against the former CEO of PCA, Stewart Parnell.
The facts of the case are staggering. The congressional investigation that followed the outbreak uncovered internal emails suggesting Parnell knew his company was shipping salmonella-contaminated peanuts.
“In my many years of handling food safety cases, I’ve yet to see a circumstance that has so clearly warranted criminal prosecution as the corporate mismanagement involved in the PCA outbreak,” said Marler.
But what will forever stick in my memory about attending this press event is the faces and voices of the family members whose lives were changed forever as a result of one company’s greed.
Shirley Hullett, from North Carolina, broke down in tears as she described how her 67-year-old husband Bobby Ray suffered excruciating pain before he was even diagnosed correctly, but by then it was too late. Now she’s a widow struggling to make ends meet. Her son and daughter-in-law also spoke, calling for justice to be done, during which Mrs. Hullett continued to cry as she sat listening to them. (I am crying as I remember it now.)
Gabrielle Meunier, the Vermont mother of a 7-year-old boy who got very sick, talked about the pain her son went though. “Mommy, it hurts so much I want to die,” little Christopher told her. And yet this mother was unable to even touch him to comfort him because his skin was so inflamed.
But this family was “lucky” because Christopher survived. Still, his immune system remains compromised such that even the slightest illness could turn into a serious condition.
Randy Napier came from Ohio to talk about how he lost his mother, Nellie Napier (age 85) who he was obviously very close to. He described how she scraped by in her younger years working for very little to help support her family. He finished by holding up a dollar bill, his hands shaking, saying: “To Stewart Parnell, this was worth more than my mother’s life.”
Lou Tousignant, from Minnesota, lost his father Clifford Tousignant (age 78), a Korean War veteran who was awarded three Purple Hearts during his service. This son didn’t want to talk about the pain his father went through; instead he told us who his father was and what he meant to him. After sharing a few stories, he said the hardest part was how his own young son wouldn’t be able to know his grandfather, that he was deprived of that special relationship.
So many thoughts ran through my head as I watched these victims bravely share their deepest emotional wounds, in the hope others would not have to suffer a similar fate. Several of them were obviously patriotic and seemed betrayed by their country, which in a way they were.
Of course, they didn’t have to fly to Washington D.C. from all over the nation (some had done so numerous times before), they didn’t have to publicly relive such horrific experiences of watching a loved one suffer. I doubt they wanted to.
Yet they did. Why?
Because they want to see justice done. Just like the victims of a drunk driver or of any other obvious crime want the perpetrator to be held accountable. They are rightly frustrated that it has been two years and still no action. I got the sense they would not give up.
It also struck me how crazy it is that we have gotten to the point in our very broken food system where the innocent act of eating peanuts (or peanut butter or peanut-flavored granola bars) can make you sick or even kill you. How can this be? It seems more mind boggling than getting sick from eating a hamburger, which shouldn’t happen either of course, but somehow makes more sense. Perhaps because peanut butter is something I associate with childhood, which is also innocent. It’s just insanity.
While sending the former CEO to jail won’t turn back the clock for these families, it will still send a powerful message to the food industry that individuals can and will be held accountable for their greed when it puts lives at risk; that they cannot keep hiding behind (in legal terms) the corporate veil, which shields them in civil liability. Charging the CEO with a crime puts a name and a face to this tragedy in a powerful way that we haven’t seen before.
And maybe, just maybe, other CEOs will take notice.