Legal Issues in the PCA Case

Since the fall season, at least 486 people in about 40 American States have been sick and at least 6 have died after the reported Salmonella outbreak. Investigators traced the outbreak on peanut butter products, with the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) as the common denominator. PCA produces peanut paste which it delivers to 70 companies in its list of costumers. These companies, in turn, use the paste in their various products such as dog biscuits and crackers.

Moreover, investigators discovered salmonella contamination in the Georgia plant of PCA and in a sample of an unopened jar found in the same location. Investigators also found out that Stewart Parnell, head of PCA, sent emails to his employees encouraging them to continue shipping the company’s peanut product to its clients despite having knowledge of the contamination. The legal issues involved vary with respect to the facts of the case. For instance, the shipment of contaminated products across different states may constitute a violation of laws on a federal level.

The continued shipment of supplies despite having knowledge of product contamination may constitute a violation of existing state laws that proscribe the act. Moreover, individual clients who purchased peanut butter products contaminated with salmonella can file separate court charges against PCA and the manufacturers of the products the complainants bought. Apparently, it is against the law to distribute consumable products to the buying public if the products contain hazardous material that poses certain risks to the health of the consumers.

The insistence to continue the shipment of contaminated products despite having full knowledge of the condition of the products is another matter that requires adequate legal concern. With regard to the distribution of the contaminated peanut paste produced by PCA, prosecutors may use the 1983 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which requires manufacturers to secure evidence for the safety of their product prior to its distribution to the public.

Since the Act seeks to promote the interest of the consumers, the fact that hundreds of people suffered from the consumption of the peanut products contaminated with salmonella suggests that there has been a lack of procedural safety measures on the part of PCA. The company should have first sought to ensure that their peanut paste is safe for distribution and for human consumption before PCA opted to sell its product to its clients. Similarly, the clients of PCA—companies that use peanut paste as an ingredient for their respective products—also have the responsibility to make sure that their products are free from health dangers.

The 1983 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act does not exempt manufacturers using contaminated ingredients or materials received from other manufacturers from being required to declare the safety of their products. Under Section 1349 otherwise known as “Attempt and Conspiracy”, Chapter 63 or “Mail Fraud” of the United States Code, the attempt or the conspiracy to commit fraud through mail is an offense and is punishable by applicable laws. Section 1343 of the same US Code Chapter proscribes any person from committing fraud through several communication means such as “wire”.

Section 1341 provides that any individual is restricted from conducting fraudulent activities or schemes for the purpose of obtaining money or property. This US Code provides stricter sanctions on those who are found guilty of fraud, with the maximum prison sentence reaching up to 20 years with the possible inclusion of fines. If it is indeed the case that Stewart Parnell issued emails to his employees urging them to deliver the contaminated peanut product of PCA despite having full knowledge of the product’s condition, Parnell can be sued for mail fraud.

In an attempt to receive profits from sales, Parnell’s email, if verified as truthfully his own, can stand as a direct evidence to show that there is negligence on his part and that profit became his primary intent while setting aside the health concerns involved. The fact that there were deaths involved also suggest that a crime has been committed presuming that a direct link between the consumption of the contaminated product and culpability on the part of PCA is established.

In such a case, the relatives of the victims can file for a wrongful death lawsuit against PCA so that they can be financially compensated for the loss of the lives of their relatives. If PCA failed to secure the safety of its product during the crucial roasting process of its peanut paste, there is negligence committed. That being the case, the deaths incurred from the consumption of the contaminated product can serve as a basis to push for a wrongful death lawsuit depending on the existing and applicable state laws.

In my opinion, there is not only negligence on the part of PCA but also fraud and conspiracy on the part of Stewart Parnell. The peanut jar contaminated with salmonella found in the Georgia plant confirms the negligence of PCA while the massive illnesses and several deaths reported after having ingested peanut products containing the peanut paste from PCA are strong indicators that an unjust act has been committed.

Parnell’s email to his employees is all the more alarming for it does not only reaffirm the claim that he sought profit first and last; it also reaffirms the claim that he consciously and actively neglected the health concerns of the consumers. The relatives of the victims who died from the consumption of the products contaminated with salmonella should only be properly financially compensated for the damages incurred.

Prosecution of PCA should be pushed with strident efforts through the filing of all the applicable lawsuits so that the crime committed will not be left unpunished and so that the prosecution can serve as deterrence to other negligent companies.

Reference Alonso-Zaldivar, R. (2009). Peanut butter recall widens to dog biscuits, granola bars. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from http://www. newsadvance. com/lna/news/local/article/peanut_butter_recall_widens_to_dog_biscuits_granola_bars/12669/