I thought it might be helpful to see a few cases where a food borne outbreak brought the attention of the US Attorney’s office. “Forwarded is Forearmed.”
Odwalla: In 1998 in what was the first criminal conviction in a large-scale food-poisoning outbreak, 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, CA, pleaded guilty to 16 counts of unknowingly delivering “adulterated food products for introduction into interstate commerce” in relation to the October 1996 outbreak. A batch of its juice infected with the toxic E. coli O157:H7 bacteria 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. As part of the probation, the company had to submit a detailed plan to the food and drug agency demonstrating its food safety precautions and any subsequent violations could have resulted in more serious charges.
Jensen Farms: In 2012 Eric Jensen, age 37, and Ryan Jensen, age 33, brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms, a fourth-generation cantaloupe operation 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 that rendered it injurious to health. The outbreak sickened more than 147 in the fall of 2011, killing more than 33 people in 28 states. The Jensen’s faced up to six years in jail and $1.5 million each in fines. The eventually pleaded guilty and were sentenced to five years of probation.
Jack DeCoster: 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 Nov. 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 may 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. They are appealing the jail sentence.
ConAgra: 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 more than 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 outbreak.
PCA: In 2015 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, GA, plant, faced a federal jury in Albany, GA.
The 12-member jury found Stewart Parnell guilty on 67 federal felony counts. Michael Parnell was found guilty on 30 counts. Wilkerson was found guilty of one of the two counts of obstruction of justice fined against her. Two other PCA employees earlier pleaded guilty to charges related to the outbreak.
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. All defendants were sentenced in July of 2015. Stewart and Michael are facing decades in jail.
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