Two months ago, at the start of the criminal trial of three former Peanut Corporation of America executives, we decided to use this Sunday space to comment on the comings and goings in the federal courtroom in Albany, GA. We’ll wrap that up now. If you still need to catch the verdicts and outcomes, go here and here. Today, that trial is over, but one question remains: Has anything changed? Michael Moore, the U.S. District attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, stepped out after the trial to say the verdicts put the food industry on notice that it is now going to be held responsible for foodborne illnesses. Criminal law has always had a role in food safety. In the past, when someone or some business was charged with food safety violations under criminal statutes, especially when felonies were charged, usually some sort of food business outlier was involved and not a mainstream player. Now, as we look around the country, that does indeed seem to have changed. Almost six years ago, when the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak began, Stewart Parnell was a member in good standing of USDA’s Peanut Standards Board, advising the Secretary of Agriculture on the quality and handling of both imported and domestic peanuts. While Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack removed Parnell from that panel faster than you can say “Ray Rice,” the peanut industry found a place of employment for him after PCA was liquidated, and that continued up to and through the trial. The Parnells are second-generation mainstream players in the peanut industry. And — I cannot help myself from saying this — they are in the jailhouse now. Across the country, in U.S. District Court for Northern California, a status hearing will be held this week on a case that appears similar in any number of ways to the PCA prosecution. It is USA v. Amaral, which involves the 76-year-old co-owner and two former employees of Rancho Feeding Corp. Until earlier this year, Rancho owned and operated the beef slaughterhouse at Petaluma, CA. Jesse John Amaral Jr. was indicted a month ago on multiple counts involving conspiracy and fraud. Only a mainstream player in the beef industry would be responsible for a beef recall totaling 8.7 million pounds and spanning Guam, Puerto Rico and 45 U.S. states. Yet the charges against Amaral actually involve a scheme to remove cancerous cow eyeballs while the diseased animals still ended up in the kill box. Meanwhile, in U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa, there’s the prosecution of Austin (Jack) DeCoster, his son Peter, and their Quality Egg LLC. They’ve appealed something in the sentencing report and that is all sealed. Mainstream? “Jack” DeCoster was the face of egg production in the U.S. for his generation. Father and son have pleaded on misdemeanors, but the LLC is down for the felony in an agreement to pay a painful $6.8-million fine. Then there are Eric and Ryan Jensen, the two Colorado cantaloupe growers, who are just about free of their “Irish Rolexes,” the radio frequency bands that kept them close to their ranches on the Kansas state line for six months. Earlier this year, they each pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of introducing contaminated food into interstate commerce stemming from the deadly Listeria outbreak three years ago involving their products. The Jensens, too, were mainstream food industry players, supplying cantaloupe to the likes of Walmart and Kroger, two of America’s top retailers. The folks at the involved trade associations may look at their feet when and if the topic ever comes up, but now it’s fair to say that certain food industry leaders from such staple industries as peanuts, beef, eggs, and fresh fruit have landed where they belong — inside a federal criminal court. The actions of federal prosecutors are contributing to food safety. The crimes and sentences in these four cases vary greatly. None, however, can be taken lightly. The Jensen brothers have put a lot of this behind them, but they will remain on freedom-restricting federal probation for another four years. Maybe, then, things have changed. But why? Well, we’ve come along way. In 1998, Sara Lee Corp. and the U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, MI, announced in a joint press release that the food company was pleading to one misdemeanor count, paying some fines, and making some financial contributions over the deaths caused by its hotdogs. Years ago, that joint announcement sent a signal to the food industry of being in bed together. Government and the food industry continued to roll in the sheets for about another 10 years. Then, in 2010 — after the PCA Salmonella outbreak — came signs of change. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began discussing with Congress the use of misdemeanor prosecutions under the doctrine of “strict liability” to make responsible corporate officials accountable for bad outcomes, such as when their contaminated food hits the market. This is something that can be accomplished without proving criminal intent to secure convictions. Eric and Ryan Jensen know all about it. But prosecutions involving conspiracy and fraud — like the one now achieved in the PCA case and perhaps the one underway involving Rancho — may be the future. The “strict liability” federal misdemeanor that FDA talked about four years ago might work as a sort of legal cattle prod to get someone’s attention, but it was not going to be enough for the PCA prosecution. The fraud and conspiracy approach that has proven so successful appears to have come from someplace else, perhaps the U.S. Department of Justice, including its Consumers Affairs Branch and the FBI. Alan Dasher, the assistant U.S. attorney who did the trial work, is likely to find himself on the lecture circuit. And, maybe it was the peanut butter. Peanut butter as poison is a scary thought for everybody. In one of his first TV interviews after taking office, President Obama said: “At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter,” he said. “That’s what (his then-7-year-old daughter) Sasha eats for lunch — probably three times a week.” Obama said he did not want to worry about Sasha getting sick. Somebody must have gotten the memo. We’ll return to normal programming next week.

  • billmarler

    Well said Dan. Thanks to you and Carter and the rest at food safety news for covering this important issue for as long as you have.

  • Appreciate the excellent coverage of the trial. And very good points in your editorial.