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Criminal Sentences Possible for Food Safety Violations

Posted by Jeffrey Forbes on Dec 8, 2016 9:09:00 AM

 CRIMINAL SENTENCES food safety-twitter.png

The FDA has gotten more aggressive in punishments for food safety laws. Fines have hit eight figures and criminal charges against executives have been filed.  Here's what food manufacturers need to know.

In October 2016 The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition from Austin and Peter DeCoster to rehear en banc their appeal.  A three-judge panel had previously denied the DeCoster’s appeal from a District Court judge.  The denial of the petition means the DeCosters will serve a three-month sentence in federal prison for violations of food safety laws.  The DeCosters own and operate an egg production company in Iowa known as Quality Egg LLC.  An investigation into a 2010 salmonella outbreak led the Food and Drug Administration to Quality Egg.   The salmonella outbreak infected 56,000 people.

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The Investigation Of The Salmonella Outbreak Resulting In Criminal Charges

The government’s investigation revealed a number of troubling practices at Quality Egg LLC.  Inspectors after the outbreak found rodents and frogs in egg laying areas as well as large amounts of manure stored near laying hens.  The investigation cited Quality Egg for failing to comply with its own food safety policies and for lying about its food safety standards to prospective customers.  Perhaps most seriously, the government charged Quality Egg with deliberatively falsifying its safety records, continuing to sell eggs marked as bad by food inspectors, and even bribing an USDA inspector.

The Charges Filed Against Quality Egg

The FDA brought criminal charges against the DeCosters under 21 U.S.C. 331(a).  This statute allows for both felony and misdemeanor charges against a corporation and its responsible corporate officers for introducing adulterated food products into interstate commerce. READ MORE: How The FDA Rules Are Setting The Bar For Any Size Farm

Both Quality Egg and the DeCosters accepted plea bargains. With the DeCosters agreeing to plead guilty to misdemeanor violations of 21 USC 331(a)The Judge sentenced the DeCosters to three months in federal prison after accepting the plea agreement on the grounds that, while the DeCosters did not know the specific eggs sold were adulterated, their safety and sanitations procedures were egregious and that they had “created a work environment where employees not only felt comfortable disregarding regulations and bribing USDA officials, but may have even felt pressure to do so.”

The Appeal That Could Affect Your Business

The DeCosters sought to appeal their prison sentence on the grounds their lack of knowledge prevented a prison sentence from being constitutional.  They saw their convictions as a form of vicarious liability – being held responsible for the actions of an employee or an agent.  The Eighth Circuit disagreed, noting that a criminal conviction under 21 USC 331(a) as a “responsible corporate officer” stems from the officers failure to act to prevent unsafe conditions and therefore requires some measure of blameworthiness from the corporate officer. 

The denial of the DeCosters’ petition for rehearing and the beginning of their prison time makes them the latest in a line of food executives going to prison for negligent or intentional wrongdoing under food safety laws. 

In other recent companies, executives have seen sentences reach as high as 28 years after their food products have caused deaths.  Fines have also started to hit eight figures, with ConAgra agreeing to pay over $11 million for another salmonella case.  The FDA has brought an increasing number of cases against companies executives after investigations into food-borne illnesses and producers need to ensure that their food safety procedures are up to speed to protect themselves, their companies, and their consumers. READ MORE: Meet HACCP And Its 7 Principles

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