Editor’s note: The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation of Abbott Nutrition, which last year was closed for several months because of food safety issues at its infant formula production plant in Sturgis, MI.

— OPINION —

Here are some cases where prosecutors brought criminal charges:

In 1998 in what the first criminal conviction in a large-scale food-poisoning outbreak was, Odwalla Inc. pleaded guilty to violating Federal food safety laws and agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine for selling tainted apple juice that killed a 16-month-old girl and sickened 70 other people in several states in 1996. Odwalla, based in Half Moon Bay, California pleaded guilty to 16 counts of unknowingly delivering ”adulterated food products for introduction into interstate commerce” in the October 1996 outbreak, in which a batch of its juice infected with the toxic bacteria E. coli O157:H7 sickened people in Colorado, California, Washington and Canada. Fourteen children developed a life-threatening disease (hemolytic uremic syndrome -HUS) that ravages kidneys. At the time, the $1.5 million penalty was the largest criminal penalty in a food poisoning case.  Odwalla also was on court-supervised probation for five years, meaning that it had to submit a detailed plan to the food and drug agency demonstrating its food safety precautions and that any subsequent violations could have resulted in more serious charges.

 In 2012 Eric Jensen, age 37, and Ryan Jensen, age 33, brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms, a fourth-generation cantaloupe operation, located in Colorado, presented themselves to U.S. marshals in Denver and were taken into custody on federal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with the Food and Drug Administration – Office of Criminal Investigation. According to the six-count indictment, Eric and Ryan Jensen unknowingly introduced adulterated (Listeria-tainted) cantaloupe into interstate commerce. The indictment further stated that the cantaloupe was prepared, packed and held under conditions, which rendered it injurious to health.  The outbreak sickened over 147, killing over 33 in 28 states in the fall of 2011.  The Jensen’s faced up to six years in jail and $1,500,000 in fines each. They eventually pleaded guilty and were sentenced to five years’ probation.

In 2013 Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, both faced charges stemming from a Salmonella outbreak caused by their Iowa egg farms in 2010.  The Salmonella outbreak ran from May 1 to November 30, 2010 and prompted the recall of more than a half-billion eggs. And, while there were 1,939 confirmed infections, statistical models used to account for Salmonella illnesses in the U.S. suggested that the eggs might have sickened more than 62,000 people. The family business, known as Quality Egg LLC, pleaded guilty in 2015 to a federal felony count of bribing a USDA egg inspector and to two misdemeanors of unknowingly introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. As part of the plea agreement, Quality Egg paid a $6.8-million fine and the DeCosters $100,000 each, for a total of $7 million.  Both DeCosters were sentenced to three months in jail.

 In 2014 former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, his brother and one-time peanut broker, Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson, former quality control manager at the company’s Blakely, Georgia, plant, faced a federal jury in Albany, Georgia. The 12-member jury found Stewart Parnell guilty on 67 federal felony counts, Michael Parnell was found guilty on 30 counts, and Wilkerson was found guilty of one of the two counts of obstruction of justice charged against her. Two other PCA employees earlier pleaded guilty. The felony charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, “with the intent to defraud or mislead,” stemmed from a 2008 to 2009 Salmonella outbreak that sickened 714 and left nine dead. Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson were all found guilty on multiple charges.  Stewart and Michael are spending decades in prison.

In 2015 ConAgra Foods agreed to plead guilty and pay $11.2 million in connection with the shipment of Salmonella contaminated peanut butter linked to a 2006 through 2007 nationwide outbreak of that sickened over 700. ConAgra signed a plea agreement admitting that it unknowingly introduced Peter Pan and private label peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella into interstate commerce during the 2006 through 2007 outbreak.

In 2020 Chipotle was ordered to pay $25 million to resolve criminal charges related to the company’s involvement in foodborne illness outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018. Chipotle was implicated in at least five foodborne illness outbreaks between 2015 and 2018 connected to restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Boston, Virginia, and Ohio.  These incidents primarily stemmed from store-level employees’ failure to follow company food safety protocols at company-owned restaurants, including a Chipotle policy requiring the exclusion of employees who were sick or recently had been sick. For example, in August 2015, 234 consumers and employees of a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California reported becoming ill.  Although company policies required the restaurant to report certain employee illnesses to Chipotle safety officials and to implement enhanced food safety procedures, the restaurant did not pass along information regarding an ill employee until multiple consumers already had reported being sick. In December 2015, a norovirus incident at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston sickened 141 people.  According to the DPA, that outbreak likely was the result of an ill apprentice manager who was ordered to continue working in violation of company policy after vomiting in the restaurant.  Two days later, the same employee helped package a catering order for a Boston College basketball team, whose members were among the consumers sickened by the outbreak. In July 2018, approximately 647 people who dined at a Chipotle restaurant in Powell, Ohio reported illness related to Clostridium perfringens, a pathogen that grows rapidly when food is not held at appropriate temperatures.  The local health department found critical violations of local food regulations, including those specific to time and temperature controls for lettuce and beans.

In 2020 Blue Bell pleaded guilty in May 2020 to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products.  The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin, Texas, was consistent with the terms of a plea agreement previously filed in the case.  The $17.25 million fine and forfeiture amount is the largest-ever criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case. In March 2015, tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked the strain of Listeria in one of the Blue Bell ice cream products to a strain that sickened five patients at a Kansas hospital with listeriosis, the severe illness caused by ingestion of Listeria-contaminated food.  The FDA, CDC, and Blue Bell all issued public recall notifications on March 13, 2015.  Subsequent tests confirmed Listeria contamination in a product made at another Blue Bell facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which led to a second recall announcement on March 23, 2015. According to the plea agreement with the company, FDA inspections in March and April 2015 revealed sanitation issues at the Brenham and Broken Arrow facilities, including problems with the hot water supply needed to properly clean equipment and deteriorating factory conditions that could lead to insanitary water dripping into product mix during the manufacturing process.  Blue Bell temporarily closed all of its plants in late April 2015 to clean and update the facilities. Since re-opening its facilities in late 2015, Blue Bell has taken significant steps to enhance sanitation processes and enact a program to test products for Listeria prior to shipment. Paul Kruse, President and CEO of Blue Bell Ice Cream, is faced a felony trial in 2022. 

So, what gives the government the right to charge a company and certain employees with either a felony or a misdemeanor?

Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938 in reaction to growing public safety demands.  The primary goal of the Act was to protect the health and safety of the public by preventing deleterious, adulterated or misbranded articles from entering interstate commerce.  Under section 402(a)(4) of the Act, a food product is deemed “adulterated” if the food was “prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.” A food product is also considered “adulterated” if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health.  The 1938 Act, and the recently signed Food Safety Modernization Act, stand today as the primary means by which the federal government enforces food safety standards.

Chapter III of the Act addresses prohibited acts, subjecting violators to both civil and criminal liability. Provisions for criminal sanctions are clear:

Felony violations include adulterating or misbranding a food, drug, or device, and putting an adulterated or misbranded food, drug, or device into interstate commerce.  Any person who commits a prohibited act violates the FDCA.  A person committing a prohibited act “with the intent to defraud or mislead” is guilty of a felony punishable by years in jail and millions in fines or both.

A misdemeanor conviction under the FDCA, unlike a felony conviction, does not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct.  Rather, a person may be convicted if he or she held a position of responsibility or authority in a firm such that the person could have prevented the violation.  Convictions under the misdemeanor provisions are punishable by not more than one year or fined not more than $250,000, or both.

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