The Senate unanimously adopted a bill late last week to stiffen the criminal penalties for companies that knowingly violate food safety laws.

The bill, authored by Judiciary Commmittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), increases the penalty for knowingly distributing contaminated or misbranded food from a misdemeanor to a felony and allows prosecutors to seek up to 10 year sentences for such offenses.

Leahy’s committee unanimously approved the bill last September and again in March, after the criminal penalties language was not included in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in January.
“Food safety received considerable attention last year, and I was pleased that Congress finally passed comprehensive food safety reforms.  But our work is not done,” said Leahy in a statement.  “On behalf of the hundreds of individuals sickened by recent salmonella outbreaks, I urge the House to quickly pass the Food Safety Accountability Act and join the Senate in continuing to improve our food safety system.”

Leahy has been pressing for tougher food safety penalties in the wake of the 2008-09 Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) Salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed nine.
Stewart Parnell, president of PCA, declined to testify before Congress about the contamination after emails indicated he knowingly shipped contaminated product into commerce. Parnell cited his Fifth Amendment rights when he appeared before the House Energy Commerce Committee in February 2009.

In February, Sen. Leahy pressed Department of Justice inquiring about the status of the department’s PCA investigation.

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