The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation Thursday that would stiffen criminal penalties for those who knowingly violate food safety standards.
Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who authored the Food Safety Accountability Act, first introduced the bill last summer and reintroduced the bill in the 112th Congress in January.
The bill would increase the offense from a misdemeanor to a felony and allow prosecutors to seek prison sentences of up to 10 years for any individual or corporation that “knowingly endangers American lives by contaminating the food supply” or by knowingly allowing tainted food products into commerce.
“Current statutes do not provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who knowingly violate our food safety laws,” said Leahy, who has become an outspoken advocate of food safety reform. “Knowingly distributing adulterated food is merely a misdemeanor right now, and the Sentencing Commission has found that it generally does not result in jail time.  The fines and recalls that usually result from criminal violations under current law fall short in protecting the public from harmful products.”

Leahy recently pressed the Department of Justice for an update on the status of its ongoing investigation into Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA) involvement in a massive product recall and Salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009. Ultimately, thousands of products were recalled, hundreds were sickened, and nine people lost their lives.

Stewart Parnell, president of PCA, declined to testify before Congress about the contamination. Parnell cited his Fifth Amendment rights when he appeared before the House Energy Commerce Committee in February 2009. 

One of Leahy’s constituents, a then 7-year-old boy from South Burlington, Vermont, was seriously sickened after eating peanut butter crackers. The boy’s mother, Gabrielle Meunier, has become a fierce advocate for stronger food safety laws, prompting Leahy to invite her to testify about her son’s illness before the Senate Agriculture Committee last year.

Leahy has found strong support for the bill on the Judiciary Committee, including Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Al Franken (D-MN), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).  Indeed, an aide said “there was no debate to speak of” as the committee considered the bill Thursday. But it’s not clear that the measure will pick up any steam in the full Senate, where it competes with a log-jammed legislative agenda currently dominated by budget wrangling.