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E. coli consultant escapes federal prison time for falsifying tests

The consultant who in 2010 said beef he tested was E. coli free when it wasn’t got off Thursday with one year of home detention, three years of probation and 200 hours of community service. He’ll also have to pay a share of $307,000 in restitution.

The 68-year-old Jim Johnson, surrounded by about two dozen family members at his federal sentencing in Los Angeles, could have been sentenced to five years imprisonment, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to one count of falsely stating a beef sample from the now defunct Huntington Meat Packing Co. tested negative when it didn’t.

ecoli026_406x250Johnson of Downey, CA, was originally charged in 2014 with six counts of providing false certifications of E. coli-free beef that wasn’t. He reached a plea agreement with the prosecution last year to plead guilty to a single count of falsifying a certification.

He appeared Thursday before U.S. District Court Judge Fernando M. Olguin for sentencing. Charges against Huntington, which was located in Montebello, CA, were dropped at least temporilary last year because the company was arranged without legal counsel present.

Johnson’s case fills in details that were not known at the time when on Jan. 18, 2010, Huntington first recalled 864,000 pounds of beef for possible E. coli O157:H7 contamination. That was followed by an additional recall of 4.9 million pounds of beef for adulteration.

At the time, an industry publication reported the 4.9 million pounds were being recalled because they were not processed in compliance with the company’s Hazard Acton and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan. Further speculation centered on “insanitary conditions” at the plant.

Huntington was not a slaughter plant, but a processing and distribution facility. It sold ground beef to others for beef patties and burritos. Testing was included as part of its HACCP plan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided all the beef Huntington produced during a year of noncompliance was adulterated.

The failure to adhere to the testing protocol for about a year put thousands of consumers at risk from exposure to the dangerous E. coli pathogen, but no confirmed illnesses were linked to the meat.

Through his federal public defender, Johnson took responsibility for what happened. “Mr. Johnson initially accepted responsibility in 2010, nearly five years before he was ultimately charged,” said deputy public defender John Hanusz.

“Mr. Johnson accepted responsibility for his crime when he pleaded guilty, and he continues to accept responsibility today,” Hanusz added. He said his client is “much more than his crime,” and urged the judge not to imprison the father of four and grandfather of some 20.

The defense attorney said his client wants to educate others in the industry about the need for honesty and integrity in the safety testing process.

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