In the aftermath of the groundbreaking plea agreement with Family Dollar Stores LLC, entailing a fine and forfeiture totaling $41.675 million for storing food, drugs, medical devices, and cosmetics in unsanitary conditions, we are starkly reminded of the imperative for stringent regulatory enforcement within the domain of food safety. This agreement, representing the largest-ever monetary criminal penalty in the context of food safety, serves as a vivid indicator of the justice system’s intensifying resolve in addressing such transgressions. This occasion necessitates reflection on historical incidents where the lack of such decisive actions had catastrophic outcomes, emphasizing the critical need for prompt and determined interventions.

The 1993 E.coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box restaurants stands as a harrowing instance. This tragedy, which resulted in the death of my son, Riley, along with three other children and afflicted more than 700 individuals across several states, was a direct result of the company’s non-compliance with state-mandated minimum cooking temperature regulations. Astonishingly, the incident led to no state or criminal charges against the company for these fatalities. Had the judiciary imposed penalties comparable to those seen today, it might have sent a formidable message to the industry, potentially preventing subsequent food safety failures.

In recent years, we have witnessed significant legal actions, including:

·       In 2023, Kerry Inc. agreed to a $19.228 million fine and forfeiture for manufacturing ready-to-eat breakfast cereal under unsanitary conditions. 

·       In 2020, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. agreed to pay $25 million to settle criminal charges related to at least five foodborne illness outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018.

·       Also in 2020, Blue Bell Creameries L.P. agreed to pay a total of $19.35 million after having pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products– stemming from their shipping of contaminated products linked to a 2015 listeriosis outbreak.

·        In 2015, ConAgra Grocery Products agreed to a plea agreement totaling $11.2 million after having pled guilty in the salmonella case involving Peter Pan peanut butter in a 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak.

These cases and others illustrate a trend toward acknowledging the severe nature of these violations and the paramount importance of public health. The evolution of legal and regulatory responses reflects a growing recognition of the necessity for accountability and the efficacy of punitive measures in averting future violations.

The sentencing of officials from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in 2015, where I witnessed the proceedings, represents a milestone in judicial responses to food safety infractions. The severe penalties imposed in this case (a sentence length far greater than the three-month sentencing seen in the trial of the owners of DeCosters Eggs) testify to the judiciary’s potential to instigate significant industry-wide changes, ensuring that consumer health and safety are prioritized. 

The prison sentences in the PCA case, along with the large settlements and fines in recent cases, serve not merely as a deterrent but as a catalyst for establishing comprehensive food safety cultures within organizations. The escalating fines highlight the increasing financial, operational, and reputational risks companies face that disregard their fundamental obligation to ensure product safety. This trend toward harsher penalties mirrors a broader societal call for corporate accountability, especially concerning public health.

This shift is a clarion call to the industry: lapses in food safety, propelled by negligence or disregard for established protocols, will not be tolerated. For companies that have embarked on rigorous efforts to safeguard consumer health, these developments affirm their endeavors to protect every plate. For others, it should serve as a wake-up call, compelling them to evaluate the costs of doing nothing. ALL food industry entities must prioritize implementing exhaustive safety measures, engage in vigilant oversight, and cultivate a culture that places consumer safety at its core.

While the recent legal actions signify substantial progress in the crusade for food safety, they also serve as poignant reminders of the tragedies that could have been averted through earlier and more decisive interventions. The movement toward more severe penalties for food safety violations is a positive evolution, signaling a commitment to holding companies accountable and preventing future outbreaks. This momentum must be sustained, ensuring that the lessons learned from past incidents propel continuous improvement in food safety standards and practices across the industry, thereby safeguarding the health and well-being of the public.

About the author: Darin Detwiler is a food safety academic, advisor, advocate, and author.  For more than 30 years, he has played a unique role in controlling foodborne illness, including service on the USDA’s National Advisory Board on Meat and Poultry Inspection, representing consumers at NGOs, serving on Conference for Food Protection councils, and supporting the FDA’s implementation of FSMA.  Detwiler is a Professor of food policy and corporate social responsibility whose research and insights have appeared on television, such as Netflix’s 2023 documentary “Poisoned,” and in print, including his book “Food Safety: Past, Present, and Predictions.” In addition to his current role as the Chair of NEHA’s Food Safety Program Committee, his leadership capacities include the FDA Foods Coalition and numerous advisory and editorial boards, and he has long consulted on food safety issues with industry in the U.S. and abroad. Detwiler is the recipient of the International Association for Food Protection’s 2022 Ewen C.D. Todd Control of Foodborne Illness Award and their 2018 Distinguished Service Award for dedicated and exceptional contributions to reducing risks of foodborne illness.