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Prosecutions and Peanut Butter

Salmonella poising is a terrible thing. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, dehydration and week long fevers. Many people end up in the hospital, some develop reactive arthritis, and a few die.

A major outbreak of salmonella poisoning took place in America in 2008 and 2009, when nine people died and over 700 others were reported ill. The outbreak was traced to an unsanitary peanut processing plant in Georgia, owned by a $30 million dollar peanut corporation, whose chief executive was Stewart Parnell.

After the plant was shuttered and the company liquidated, Parnell was indicted and prosecuted. After being found guilty, Parnell received a stunning sentence last week: 28 years in prison.

We also know that a serious auto accident is a serious thing and that faulty ignition switches installed on General Motors-made Cobalts and Saturn Ions between 2003 and 2007 resulted in at least 124 deaths and hundreds of severe injuries. And yet, a few days before Parnell was sentenced, the top prosecutor in Manhattan announced a settlement with GM that included a $900 million dollar fine and a three-year deferred prosecution agreement. Not a single GM employee was indicted.

How do we reconcile these two cases? How do executives of a company whose product killed 124 get off cleanly while the executive of a company whose product killed 9 gets 28 years? The explanation, and there is some truth to this, is that it is very tough to prosecute an auto industry executive, where prosecutors not only have to deal with auto lobbyists and auto safety laws, but also have to show individual criminal intent.

However, the prosecutor in Georgia relied on plain old fraud charges more than food safety charges, which allow for the prosecution of individuals. Shockingly, the fact that the salmonella poisoning caused 9 deaths was not even part of the trial! Instead, the focus was on whether Parnell committed fraud by knowingly introducing tainted peanut butter into interstate commerce. Could the same theory have been used to prosecute the auto executives?


Source: Joe Nocera, New York Times, Op-Ed

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