Federal Judge W. Louis Sands drew some harsh comments from Food Safety News readers in recent days for his ruling that corporate executives would not have to pay restitution to victims of a deadly Salmonella outbreak traced to peanut butter and related products. I confess, my initial reaction was similar to those readers who wondered why the judge was worried about how much money prolonged legal proceedings would cost the owners and executives of Peanut Corporation of America. On the surface is it seemed he had forgotten about the nine people who died and the hundreds of others who were sickened in the 2008-09 outbreak. Then I did a bit of research. I also talked with Food Safety News Editor Dan Flynn who covered the PCA case as it drug on for three years. I began to see the larger picture. As a journalist, the importance of having a factual record for historical purposes is important to me. It’s one of the services the media can and should provide to the public. (Yes, I believe journalism is a public service profession.) But as much as I hate the fact that no one is going to tally up how much the individual victims, their families and PCA’s corporate trading partners should be paid in restitution, I understand now that mathematical exercise would likely not be worth the time. There’s no more money — personal or corporate — to help the victims. There is, however, the lasting impact of the prison sentences imposed in the PCA case and other food-related criminal cases in recent history by Judge Sands and his colleagues on the federal bench. The peanut butter brothers Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell and two of their PCA managers, Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, won’t be paying restitution, but they are all serving hard time, ranging from 3 to 28 years. Justice Department fires a warning shot While Judge Sands was no doubt proofreading his ruling, which posted April 7, a top member of the U.S. Attorney General’s team was praising the sentences in the PCA case and promising there would be more criminal prosecutions to come as the Justice Department fulfills its mission. “Our food safety work is fundamental to our consumer protection mission, because no product plays a more vital role in the lives of every single American,” said principal deputy assistant attorney general Benjamin C. Mizer when he addressed the Consumer Federation of America’s 39th annual National Food Policy Conference the day before Judge Sands filed his ruling in the PCA case. “That is why we take food safety no less seriously than any of the other risks that face the American people and why it has been the subject of much of our work during my time in the Civil Division.” Mizer cited a laundry list of federal criminal cases against food businesses and their owners — felonies and misdemeanors — the Justice Department has prosecuted in recent history including the PCA case and two other high-profile criminal prosecutions:
- A Listeria outbreak linked to fresh, whole cantaloupe from Colorado that resulted in at least 33 deaths; and
- A Salmonella outbreak traced to eggs from Iowa that sickened more than 2,000.
Mizer said even though the cantaloupe and egg producers were charged with misdemeanors and not felonies, they still went to jail and paid fines. Just as other food producers, handlers and sellers can expect to do if they choose profit over public safety. “The Justice Department’s focus on food safety and our recent successful prosecutions — some of which I have mentioned here today — have accomplished a great deal,” Mizer told the conference attendees. “The cases that we bring help create conditions that ensure the safety of the food supply. They create incentives for good behavior and they deter misconduct. … We are committed to continuing to vigorously prosecute food safety cases.” This aggressive approach to enforcement of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is also designed to “empower those within an organization who see unsafe practices to speak out,” Mizer said. Indeed, until food companies embrace appropriate, effective and proven food safety practices and understand that the cost of such measures is much less than the cost of recalls and outbreaks, the aggressive prosecution and imposition of prison sentences seems to be the best approach. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)