ALBANY, Georgia (CNN) -

It was in a bland, windowless third-floor courtroom here that Jeff Almer first locked eyes with the man he holds responsible for his mother's death.

Shirley Mae Almer, 72, survived lung cancer and a brain tumor. But not peanut butter.

One of America's favorite foods -- tainted with salmonella -- killed her, just four days before Christmas in 2008.

Her grief-stricken son opened the presents she'd left for him under the tree: a shirt and a GPS device. He's thankful now that he can't quite remember which shirt it was. He doesn't want to be reminded.

His mother's death spurred Almer to become a public face for the fight for tougher food safety regulations. Now, he awaits justice.

The salmonella-laced product Shirley Almer consumed was traced back to peanuts produced at Peanut Corp. of America, a plant in the "Peanut Proud" town of Blakely, Georgia.

Stewart Parnell, the man who owned and ran Peanut Corp., is facing prosecution in an unprecedented criminal trial in Albany, about an hour's drive from the now boarded-up plant.

It felt surreal for Almer to gaze into Parnell's eyes as the trial began in early August. He is sure in his heart that Parnell deliberately ordered the shipment of peanut butter and paste he knew carried the potentially deadly bacteria.

The Peanut Corp. salmonella outbreak has already led to new federal food safety regulations. It's a big reason why Americans should feel safer about tainted food being pulled off grocery shelves more quickly, like the salmonella contaminated nut butters that were recalled this week.

Now, the trial has the potential to make the outbreak the most influential food-borne illness incident in America. Never before has a jury heard a criminal case in which a corporate chief faced federal criminal charges for knowingly shipping out food containing salmonella. No matter the outcome of the trial, about to enter a fifth week, it is sure to make a lasting impact on how criminal statutes are applied to food safety, advocates say.

Almer recently sat on one of several hard wooden benches at the back of the courtroom. He could see the 12-member jury and six alternates seated on the right side of the court. Even with the air conditioning on, some fanned themselves to stay cool.

On the other side, he had a clear view of Parnell and his younger brother Michael Parnell, who are on trial together after being indicted on 76 counts, among them conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead. The fraud and conspiracy charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Stewart Parnell also faces obstruction of justice charges, as does former plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson, who sat with her attorney next to Michael Parnell.

The government says the Parnell brothers and Wilkerson put profit before safety. They knew about the salmonella in their products, prosecutors say, and covered up lab results that tested positive for the bacteria.

In all, nine people died nationwide; another 714 people in 46 states were sickened, some critically. It was the deadliest outbreak of its kind in recent years.

The prosecution's blistering opening statement contained three now-infamous words Parnell penned in a March 2007 email to a plant manager about contaminated products: "Just ship it."

Defense attorneys argue that Parnell did not know about mismanagement at the plant, that he was the fall guy for other employees' wrongdoing.

But Almer doesn't see it that way.

"This man had an opportunity to come clean, but I've never seen anything but tap dancing around the issue," Almer said. He'd watched Parnell take the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before a congressional committee a few weeks after federal food inspectors raided the plant.

Almer longs for the end of the trial. Yet, he said, he and his brothers and sisters needed it so they could go on with their lives. It seemed like everything came undone after their mom died. She was the glue of the family, the one with "sisu," they like to say -- the Finnish word for spunk and fortitude.

People think salmonella is something that gives you a stomachache, Almer said. "It killed my mother."

As he settled into his seat at the trial, his girlfriend by his side, he knew it would be tough to hear it all play out again, to relive the tragedy that struck his family in Minnesota and the nightmare winter for all of America when a popular paste turned national foe.

Peanuts, pride and a black eye

Shirley Mae Almer contracted a urinary tract infection around Thanksgiving 2008 and checked into the Good Samaritan, a short-term care facility in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Her daughter Ginger Lorentz came to visit Almer and made her toast slathered with peanut butter from the facility's kitchen.