Justice Department Ramps Up Corporate Criminal Prosecutions of Food Companies

The Justice Department’s Stuart Delery went before the Fifth Annual American Food Manufacturing and Safety Summit in Dallas, Texas last month to deliver a message that the industry didn’t necessarily want to hear.

Stuart Delery

Stuart Delery

While civil remedies available under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act are important and civil cases make up the majority of the food safety actions the Department brings, it’s criminal prosecutions that have and will continue to grab the headlines.

“Many of the headlines about the Justice Department’s increasing focus on food safety have highlighted the criminal prosecutions we have brought,” Delery said. “These prosecutions have targeted not only companies but also individuals who have been responsible for putting consumers at risk.”

Delery highlighted the criminal trial and convictions of the former CEO and two other officials associated with the Peanut Corporation of America, or PCA.

PCA products were tied to a salmonella outbreak that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  led to over 700 reported infections and nine deaths.

Using epidemiological projections, the CDC estimates that over 22,000 individuals may have been affected by salmonella.

“The human toll of an outbreak on this scale is heartbreaking, but the actions that caused it make it all the more horrifying,” Delery said.

The evidence the Justice Department introduced at the trial showed that the officials misled PCA’s customers about what they had done to test their products and covered up the fact that some of the products had tested positive for salmonella.

They fabricated certificates of analysis accompanying various shipments of peanut products so that the certificates stated that the food in the packages was free of pathogens.

In fact, there had been no testing of the food – or, even worse, tests had revealed that the food was contaminated.

After a seven week trial, a federal jury found the officials guilty of FDCA violations, conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud, as well as obstruction of justice for making false and misleading statements to FDA investigators responding to the outbreak.

“It is easy to hear these allegations – to hear about company officials deciding to ship peanut butter to stores around the country knowing that it is contaminated with salmonella – and to dismiss them as an anomaly,” Delery said. “It is easy to think — that could never happen at my company.  It is easy to think — that could never be me.”

“And in many ways, that’s right,” Delery said. “The overwhelming majority of the food produced in America is not tainted with pathogens. The overwhelming majority of people in the food manufacturing business do the right thing, day in and day out, diligently working to ensure that the processes they use are appropriate and the products they sell are safe.”

“But in an industry that occupies a critical position of public trust, even a tiny minority can cause grave harm,” Delery said.  “Even a single decision to cut corners can have deadly consequences. The criminal prosecutions we bring should stand as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of disregarding danger to one’s customers in the name of getting a shipment out on time – of sacrificing what is right for what is expedient.”

Delery said that he has spent the past six and a half years at the Department of Justice and the past three years overseeing much of the department’s work related to issues of food safety – first as the head of the Civil Division and now as the department’s number three official.

“The core of the Justice Department’s mission is to protect the American people,” Delery said. “That means fighting terrorism and cyber-crime and violent gangs. It means preserving our financial security by fighting fraud.”

“And it means ensuring the safety of the food we eat, the medicines we take and the medical devices we use.”

“This basic message – that food, drug and medical device safety should be taken no less seriously than any other risk facing the American people – is a critical one. And it is a message that, during my time at the Department of Justice, I have had too many opportunities to repeat.  It is a message I conveyed when we responded to the deadly salmonella outbreak that ultimately led to the criminal convictions or guilty pleas of four officials of the Peanut Corporation of America.  It is a message I delivered after fungus in a purportedly sterile injectable steroid caused a nationwide meningitis outbreak – an outbreak that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killed over 70 people and sickened hundreds more.  And it is a message that I have repeated in announcing dozens of actions we have taken to ensure that unsafe manufacturers clean up their practices before they can result in the next outbreak.”

“But this is the first chance I have had to speak directly to you – the leaders in food safety and manufacturing in the United States, the people who have dedicated their careers to bringing safe and healthy food to consumers across the country and around the world. You are the people who ensure that we have confidence in what we eat – that when our families sit down together at the dinner table, or when our kids head to lunch at the school cafeteria, we can know that food and drinks we are enjoying are safe. So I’m glad for the chance to speak to you about an issue – food safety – that I and the Department of Justice care deeply about.”

Delery said that “as parents, we can make sure that our kids look both ways before they cross street.  We can buckle their seat belts when we’re in the car and make sure they wear helmets when they ride their bikes.”

“But we have to rely on you – on the companies who manufacture and distribute food – to ensure that the food we buy for our children is safe.  That is not something we can do on our own.”

“Now, the overwhelming majority of food produced and consumed in the United States is safe. America’s incidence of foodborne illness is below the average in other developed countries, and it continues to drop. Every day, the vast majority of Americans buy and eat food with total confidence in its quality. That confidence is a testament to you and your companies.”

“That said, foodborne illness still imposes a significant public health burden on the American people. About 48 million Americans, or one out of every six people, get sick each year from food. For many of those people, the problem isn’t just a stomach ache. It can cause life-long chronic diseases, like arthritis and kidney failure.  The CDC estimates that 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illness and 128,000 people are hospitalized.”


Copyright © Corporate Crime Reporter
In Print 48 Weeks A Year

Built on Notes Blog Core
Powered by WordPress