By Darin Detwiler

In reflecting on the evolution of food safety over the past three decades, we observe a landscape marked by significant and escalating legal actions against companies responsible for outbreaks and violations.  The effectiveness of these penalties, especially monetary fines, in preventing future lapses in food safety, merits a deeper examination.

  • Jack-in-the-Box: This 1993 multi-state E. coli outbreak sickened over 700 people across four states, resulted in over 170 hospitalizations and took the lives of four children. became a critical turning point in the U.S. for food safety awareness, regulation, and policy. However, the absence of state or federal charges against the company or its executives sent a message to the industry that, at that time, regulatory and legal frameworks might not sufficiently penalize or hold corporations accountable for lapses in food safety, potentially underestimating the importance of stringent food safety protocols and oversight. 
  • Jensen Farms:  This2011 Listeria monocytogenes outbreak tied to cantaloupe resulted in at least 147 illnesses across 28 states, with 33 deaths.  Today, this event is still the worst foodborne illness outbreak in the United States. The court sentenced the two owners each to five years’ probation, six months home detention, $150,000 in restitution and 100 hours of community service. 
  • DeCoster’s Eggs: The 2010 Salmonella outbreak led to one of the largest recalls in U.S. history, involving approximately 550 million eggs, as well as a nationwide public health crisis, affecting thousands. The 2014 trial and 2015 sentencing came with a $6.8 million dollar fine and saw the owners sentenced to prison, marking a rare instance where corporate executives faced jail time for negligence in food safety practices. The significance of the DeCosters’ egg outbreak and the subsequent sentencing lies in its establishment of a precedent for holding food company executives criminally responsible for food safety violations. This case underscored the seriousness with which the U.S. justice system began to treat food safety violations, signaling to the industry that leadership could be held personally accountable for the safety of their products, thus elevating the importance of rigorous food safety management within corporate culture.
  • Peanut Corporation of America (PCA): This 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak traced to PCA’s products resulted in nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses across 46 states, leading to one of the largest food recalls (over 3,900 different types of products) in U.S. history. The 2014 trial and 2015 sentencing marked a stark escalation in the consequences for food safety failures, with numerous convictions and lengthy prison sentences for the executives involved. This case exemplified the judicial system’s growing resolve to treat food safety negligence as a grave legal and ethical breach.
  • ConAgra Grocery Products: This 2002 Listeria Outbreak, linked to contaminated peanut butter, marked a significant food safety incident. The outbreak resulted in widespread public health concerns, and, like the PCA incident, involved an extensive and lengthy investigation over the next five years. This incident led to one of the largest product recalls of its kind at the time, encompassing millions of jars of peanut butter sold under various brand names.  In 2015, ConAgra Grocery Products LLC agreed to plead guilty to federal charges related to the outbreak and was sentenced to pay an $11.2 million settlement, which included an $8 million criminal fine—the largest ever in a U.S. food safety case up to that point. 
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill: Multiple multi-state outbreaks between 2015 and 2018 involved multiple incidents of foodborne illnesses, involving various pathogens such as E. coli, Norovirus, and Salmonella linked to Chipotle. The subsequent federal fine of over $25 million dollars (the largest ever in a U.S. food safety case up to that point) underscored the importance of operational practices in ensuring food safety. This case also highlighted the reputational damage (stock values took 15 NYSE quarters of trading to recover) and financial penalties companies could face, even without criminal charges.
  • Blue Bell Creameries: The 2015 Listeria ice cream recall would result in Blue Bell pleading guilty (and paying criminal penalties totaling $17.25 million) to two counts of distributing adulterated food products in violation of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act 21 U.S.C. ch. 9 § 301 et seq. The court later sentenced the company to pay an additional $2.1 million to resolve civil False Claims Act (1863) allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under insanitary conditions (and sold to federal / military facilities).  At the time, the $19.35 million in fine, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments constituted the second largest-ever amount paid in resolution of a food safety matter. This case further illustrated the increased financial and operational consequences for companies failing to adhere to food safety standards, emphasizing the role of top leadership in preventing such crises.
  • Family Dollar Stores LLC, a subsidiary of Dollar Tree Inc.: Most recent event involved egregious sanitation violations, including a severe and widespread rodent infestation, noted between 2020 and 2022, at Family Dollar Store’s West Memphis, AR, distribution center. The issues were so pronounced that they prompted a recall of all FDA-regulated products that came through that center from January 2021-February 2022, impacting over 400 stores across six states. The company entered into a plea agreement that includes a fine and forfeiture amount topping $41 million dollars – representing the current zenith of accountability.  Soon after this agreement, the company announced their decision to close over 1,000 stores. This case not only showcases the continued escalation of direct financial repercussions but also highlights the broader impact on food security and access in affected communities.

These escalating consequences from past outbreaks to the present day signal a clear trend (see graphic) towards greater accountability and, more so, stricter financial penalties for food safety failures.  Future cases will likely see even more stringent financial penalties, but will they include more significant operational impacts and personal accountability for corporate executives?

The substantial fines imposed on companies like Chipotle and Family Dollar Stores represent attempts to penalize and deter unsafe practices. However, these financial penalties must not be the end-all solution. Some may infer that the increase in corporate financial penalties has become the new industry tactic to avoid prosecution and prison time. True deterrence will come from a holistic approach that includes not just fines but also rigorous enforcement of the Responsible Corporate Officer (RCO) Doctrine, ensuring that individuals in positions of authority cannot evade personal accountability for violations of public welfare laws. 

History show us that fines, even those exceeding tens of millions of dollars, have not eradicated negligence. As fines grow larger, we must consider if they alone are sufficient to deter malfeasance or if they inadvertently allow wealthy corporations to bypass meaningful consequences. Consumers will feel the impact, both in terms of food safety and higher prices, if these fines become merely a cost of doing business for entities whose decisions are driven more by profit than by ethical considerations for consumer health and safety. 

  • The next big failure in food safety is not a matter of if, but when, and it will likely result from a combination of ignored warnings (perhaps even those related to ESG), systemic vulnerabilities, and unanticipated challenges. As food technology advances and the global supply chain expands, the complexity of maintaining food safety standards increases. 
  • This next big failure is likely to emerge not just from a gap in food safety practices but from a systemic undervaluation of rigorous ethical standards and a culture of compliance. The potential for failure grows not necessarily from a lack of knowledge or technology but from a failure to prioritize safety over profit at every level of decision-making.
  • This future landmark event may result not only in unprecedented penalties but could also drive a transformative shift in how food safety is integrated into the core values and operations of companies. 

Fines and legal actions will always be reactive measures – their impact never undoing the true burden to consumers forever harmed. In this era of rapid technological advancement and increasingly global supply chains, the next failure in food safety is preventable not by fear of financial loss but through a steadfast commitment to the principles of public health and safety.

To ensure that the next landmark in food safety is not a failure but a success story of prevention, we must focus on a foundation of ethical leadership and accountability that permeates every level of the food industry. Proactive, ethical decision-making that places consumer welfare at the forefront must be ingrained in every decision, from daily operations to strategic planning. To support this, the courage to prioritize food safety must be cultivated, validated, and even celebrated. 

Let us learn from the past not to predict failure but to pave the way for a future where food safety failures become historical anomalies, not recurring headlines. To prevent becoming the next cautionary tale, companies across the food industry must prioritize food safety as a central pillar of their corporate responsibility. 

By learning from past mistakes and embracing innovation in risk management, the food industry can aim not just to react to crises, but to prevent them. In doing so, the food industry will protect not only its consumers but also its own future.

About the author: Darin Detwiler is a food safety academic, advisor, advocate, and author.  For nearly 30 years, he has played a unique role in controlling foodborne illness.  After losing his son, Riley, to E.coli in 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, the Secretary of Agriculture invited Detwiler’s collaboration on consumer education.  He was twice appointed to the USDA’s National Advisory Board on Meat and Poultry Inspection, represented consumers as the Senior Policy Coordinator for STOP Foodborne Illness, served on Conference for Food Protection councils, and supported the FDA’s implementation of FSMA. Detwiler is a professor of food policy and corporate social responsibility at Northeastern University.  He is chair of the National Environmental Health Association’s Food Safety Program. 

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