From Peanuts to Prison: Applying Ethical Theories of Decision-making
Journal of Critical Incidents
This critical incident was prepared by the authors and is intended to be used as a basis
for class discussion. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the views of the Society for Case Research. The views are based on
Mary Wilkerson started as a receptionist and worked her way up to become quality
assurance manager at a peanut processing plant owned by Peanut Corporation of
America (PCA) (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 4). The plant produced industrial
peanut butter and peanut base which were used by major manufacturers of consumer
products containing peanuts (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 2). Mary's
responsibilities in the process included product safety testing and reporting (Grand Jury
Indictment, 2013, p. 36). As a consequence of her poor management decisions, along
with the poor decisions of others, contaminated peanut products were manufactured
and distributed by PCA. The contaminated products led to widespread serious illnesses
and deaths (The United States Department of Justice, 2015). On September 19, 2014,
Mary's life changed forever when she was convicted of obstruction of justice and
sentenced to serve 60 months in prison followed by two years of supervised probation
(The United States Department of Justice, 2015).
PCA owned and operated three processing plants located in Georgia, Texas and Virginia
(Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 1). Total sales for the privately held company were
approximately $30 million during 2007-2008, the last fiscal year of operations (Grand
Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 2). Stewart Parnell was president and an owner of PCA (Grand
Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 2).
After starting as a receptionist at PCA's plant in Georgia, Mary was promoted to office
manager and then quality assurance manager (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 4). As
quality assurance manager, she was responsible for the testing of the plant's products to
ensure they were not contaminated with bacteria or other substances which could cause
illness and death (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 36).
The plant Mary worked at processed peanuts into peanut butter and peanut base which
were then shipped to major manufacturers of consumer products (Grand Jury
Indictment, 2013, p. 2). The manufacturers used the peanut products in foods such as
peanut butter crackers (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 20).
The production of peanut products by PCA highlights the dangers posed by salmonella
contamination. In the federal indictment in which Mary, her supervisor and Stewart
Parnell were accused of crimes related to their work for PCA, it was observed that,
"People typically ingest salmonella through food... Salmonella infections can be lifethreatening, especially for infants and young children, pregnant women and their
unborn babies, older adults, and other persons with weakened immune systems" (Grand
Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 10).
To help ensure their products are free of contamination, peanut processors sample their
production and have independent laboratories test for salmonella and other
contaminants (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 10). Although Mary was responsible for
product testing at the plant, she knew from emails she had received from Parnell, as
well as conversations with her supervisor, that the company lost money whenever there
were delays due to testing; or a batch had to be discarded because of a lab report
indicating contamination (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 34). In one particular email
received by Mary, her supervisor and others, Parnell wrote:
I am not sure anyone down there quite understands how SERIOUS this is ... these are
not peanuts you are throwing away every day ... IT IS MONEY ... IT IS MONEY ... IT
IS MONEY ... IT IS GOD DAMN MONEY THAT WE DO NOT HAVE BECAUSE
OF HOW LONG I HAVE ALLOWED you, your crew and everyone down there to let
THIS GO ON. (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 34)
Under such pressure from Parnell, Mary allowed shipments of peanut paste to be sent
to customers without testing, falsified test results, and concealed use of foreign product
for customers requiring USA-only ingredients (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 36).
She also created a plan to divide the processing plant into two areas to obtain separate
inspection audits in order to conceal problems (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 40).
Where was the FDA in all of this? According to the Office of Inspector General of the
United States Department of Health and Human Services (2010), it is the responsibility
of the FDA to safeguard "the Nation's food supply by ensuring that all ingredients used
in food are safe and that food is free of disease-causing organisms, chemicals, or other
harmful substances" (p. 1). To help fulfill its responsibilities, the "FDA inspects food
facilities to ensure food safety and compliance with regulations' (p. 8). However, the
number of actual inspections performed by the FDA during the time Mary worked at
PCA decreased substantially (p. ii).
All seemed to be going along just fine until a salmonella outbreak began in 2009.
During this nationwide outbreak, more than 22,000 people were infected and nine were
killed (The United States Department of Justice, 2015). Through its investigative
processes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the source
of the outbreak as originating in contaminated products produced by PCA (The United
States Department of Justice, 2015). After the outbreak was discovered, the FDA
inspected Mary's plant (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 13). During the investigation,
Mary was less than truthful with the investigators (Grand Jury Indictment, 2013, p. 50).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also conducted an investigation (The United
States Department of Justice, 2015). The FBI's investigation resulted in the prosecution
of Mary, her supervisor, Parnell, and others (The United States Department of Justice,
2015). Mary was found guilty of obstruction of justice for lying to federal agents and
sentenced to serve five years in prison followed by two years of probation (The United
States Department of Justice, 2015). Her supervisor pled guilty to conspiracy, mail and
wire fraud, and the sale of misbranded and adulterated food; and was sentenced to three
years in prison followed by three years of supervised release (The United States
Department of Justice, 2015). Parnell was convicted of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud,
the introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce, the introduction of
adulterated food, and obstruction of justice (The United States Department of Justice,
2015). He was sentenced to serve 28 years in prison followed by three years of
probation (The United States Department of Justice, 2015).
If you were an advisor to Mary during her time as a PCA employee, how could you
have helped her to avoid her present situation? What specific actions would you have
advised her to take in her role as manager? How would your advice have changed if
you applied different ethical theories?
Grand Jury Indictment. (2013). United States of America v. Stewart Parnell, Michael
Parnell, Samuel Lightsey, and Mary Wilkerson, Defendants. Retrieved from:
Office of Inspector General of the United States Department of Health and Human
Services. (2010). FDA inspections of domestic food facilities. Retrieved from:
The United States Department of Justice. (2015). Former peanut company president
receives largest criminal sentence in food safety case; Two others also sentenced for
their roles in salmonella-tainted peanut product outbreak. Retrieved from:
Rickey E. Richardson, Tarleton State University
Kyle Post, Tarleton State University
H. Kevin Fulk, Tarleton State University
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2017 Society for Case Research.
Richardson, Rickey E., Kyle Post, and H. Kevin Fulk. "From Peanuts to Prison:
Applying Ethical Theories of Decision-making." Journal of Critical Incidents 10
(2017): 66+. Business Insights: Global. Web. 17 Mar. 2020.
Case study: Ethical Decision-Making
Please read the case study : From Peanuts to Prison: Applying Ethical Theories of
In an APA formatted paper of sufficient length, including a cover page and references,
please explain how Mary could have handled the situation when pressured by Parnell
by using the textbook decision-making model. As you apply the decision-making model
covered in the textbook (Figure 2.2 as shown below), you will practice applying each
of three major ethical philosophies (utilitarianism, deontological aka human rights and
duties, and virtue ethics aka ethical relativism) to analyze and weight your alternative
approaches to the case. Please be certain to cite sources that support/provide evidence
for what you write.
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