This week saw the owner and CEO of the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America, Stewart Parnell, sentenced to a 28-year jail term over his role in the 2008-9 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened 714 more.

The sentence, handed out by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia, is the toughest penalty ever given to an executive involved in a food safety outbreak. It follows a jury finding Parnell guilty of more than 70 felony charges, including fraud, conspiracy and the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce.

Other executives at PCA have also been convicted and sentenced: food broker Michael Parnell received a 20-year jail term and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson was given five years.

Compared to prior convictions for food safety breaches, Parnell's sentencing is tough. For instance, in 2012 Eric and Ryan Jensen, the brothers at the centre of a 2011 listeria outbreak that resulted in 33 deaths, were sentenced to five years probation after pleading guilty to charges of unknowingly introducing adulterated cantaloup to interstate commerce. According to the indictment, the cantaloupe was prepared, packaged and stored "under conditions which rendered it injurious to health".

This year, ConAgra Foods entered a guilty plea and admitted it unknowingly introduced Peter Pan and private-label peanut butter contaminated with salmonella into interstate commerce. This resulted in a 2006-7 outbreak that sickened over 700 people. The company was slapped with a fine of US$11.2m.

So, why was Parnell's sentence so much more severe? It is not – solely at least – the result of a hardening of attitudes to food safety. The key to Parnell's sentencing is intent.

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By GlobalData

When the salmonella outbreak was traced to the PCA facility in Georgia, federal investigators found a leaky roof and pests such as cockroaches and rodents. They also uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers.

Nevertheless, for US food safety lawyer and advocate Bill Marler, the Parnell conviction – alongside that of ConAgra, the Jensens and a host of others – serves to highlight a disparity in the way US food safety law is enforced.

Marler highlights a number of outbreaks where charges are yet to be brought against the those involved, including the 2014 Bidart Brothers listeria apple outbreak and this year's Blue Bell Creameries listeria outbreak, which was found to be caused by "significant" food hygiene breaches.

"I find it a bit hard to parse out why some have been targeted – OK, perhaps the Parnell prosecution is a bit easier because it was so clearly intentional – and some have not, or at least not yet," Marler writes.

"Honestly, what are the differences in prosecuting the Jensens… and ConAgra and leaving the others – so far – unmolested? Is it the number of sick, the number of dead? Is it the economic consequences? What really are the criteria, or, should it simply be left to the discretion of the prosecutor as to who or what feels the sting of the criminal justice system?"

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, 48m people in the US fall ill due to foodborne illnesses each year, resulting in around 3,000 deaths. In an effort to reduce this number, in 2011 the Obama administration introduced the Food Safety Modernisation Act, which focused on prevention rather than containment and gave the FDA the power to suspend sales from a facility found to breach food safety regulations.

However, amid reports the FDA remains under-resourced, it is clear a joined-up approach between legislators, regulators and the judiciary on food safety regulation and its implementation is needed.