Is The Peanut Corporation Of America Still Around?

by Hope Racine

A year after being found guilty of over 70 counts of conspiracy and fraud, Stewart Parnell, the former CEO and owner of a peanut company, is basically facing life in prison. Last year, Parnell was found guilty of knowingly shipping peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, which killed nine people and made 714 others sick. But is his company, the Peanut Corporation of America still around?

The business is long gone — The Peanut Corporation of America's plants were closed, and the Virginia-based company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009, which resulted in a full liquidation of assets. But during Parnell's trial, details were released about the state of the company that were truly disturbing, and left some wondering how the PCA managed to stay in business for so long.

Testimony during Parnell's trial showed that the owner knew about the contaminated peanut shipment, and gave orders to "just ship it." In addition to poor oversight, the company's plants were apparently breeding grounds for health and safety concerns. According to former employees, the Georgia plant where the outbreak originated contained rats, roaches, mold, dirt, and a leaky roof that could have contributed to the presence of salmonella. The Texas plant had similar conditions. But as shocking as the testimony was, the company's history of health and safety concerns showed that the trouble didn't start there.

The business was a small, family-run affair. Parnell and his brother Michael (who was also charged), operated several plants in Virginia, Georgia, and Texas. But health and safety concerns began plaguing the company. In 1990, the company was cited by the FDA for shipping peanuts that contained aflatoxin, which is a kind of fungal toxin. As a result, they were sued by a candy company they had a contract with and had to issue a recall. In 2001, the company once again was inspected by the FDA due to aflatoxin.

Throughout the early 2000s, the PCA faced several health and safety issues involving aflatoxin or poor conditions in the plants. At one point, the FDA wasn't even aware that the plant was producing peanut butter. In 2008, one of their shipments was rejected by a Canadian client because there were metal fragments in the peanuts.

Throughout 2008 and 2009 the salmonella outbreak occurred, resulting in a national recall on PCA's peanut butter, as well as an FDA investigation into the company. During the recall and investigation, the company ceased production, and filed bankruptcy almost immediately afterward.

Although salmonella is among the most common causes of foodborne sickness in America, Parnell is the first food company executive to be found personally and criminally liable for an outbreak. Parnell, who was facing a life sentence, received 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping contaminated food. Although the PCA outbreak was one of the worst in recent years, it could be a warning shot to companies with similar health and safety histories — who are unfortunately still in business.

Image: Dean Hochman/Flickr