Feds rarely file charges in tainted food cases
(Associated Press, GA)
By GREG BLUESTEIN
As federal officials launch a criminal investigation into
Food safety watchdogs and legal experts say criminal charges have only been brought against a handful of companies involved in high-profile outbreaks though federal law allows cases to be prosecuted without proof the company knew it was distributing contaminated food. They say the law is not used often because there has been little will to pursue criminal charges in all but the most noteworthy and outrageous cases, and that has put the public at risk.
"Part of that system is the ability to penalize the
people that fail," said Michael Taylor, a food safety scientist at
Food safety advocates hope that is starting to change.
The Food and Drug Administration said Friday it has asked
the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into Virginia-based
Peanut Corp. of
If they decide to press charges, prosecutors could use the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which gave the government leeway to charge food manufacturers if they were responsible for contaminated food. The Supreme Court gave prosecutors more leverage in 1975 when it ruled they didn't have to prove the companies knew the food was contaminated.
The ruling prompted only a modest increase in prosecutions.
"There have been innumerable times they could have
prosecuted but didn't," said Bill Marler, a
Seattle-based food safety lawyer who has filed two lawsuits against Peanut
The Food and Drug Administration said it doesn't track food-related prosecutions separately, but said its investigative arm logged 341 arrests and 279 convictions in 2006. Many of those involved counterfeit medicines and faulty or tampered products, which also fall under its jurisdiction.
Recent convictions include the 1996 case against juice-maker Odwalla Inc., which was fined $1.5 million on charges of shipping unpasteurized apple juice that killed a baby.
Five years later, Sara Lee Corp. was fined $200,000 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of selling tainted meats in a listeria outbreak that killed 15 people.
The FDA also points to prosecutions in lower-profile
cases, such as the 2007 conviction of a man who made false reports to
investigators after a mix-up led to antibiotics being dumped into
unpasteurized milk at a
Although cases may not yield criminal charges, firms are often targeted with a flood of civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages. In some cases, the companies also agree to tighten testing standards and spend more money on safety measures.
A 1993 E. coli outbreak that sickened about 700 people and killed four who ate undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers never yielded prosecutions, but did lead to tighter Agriculture Department safety standards for meat and poultry producers.
Federal charges also were never filed against ConAgra in the 2002 E. coli outbreak that prompted a massive meat recall and sickened at least 19, or the company's 2007 peanut butter recall after a salmonella outbreak spread to more than 400 people.
And prosecutors decided against pursuing charges against two produce companies involved in the 2006 tainted spinach case, saying the investigation found the growers and processors did not deliberately skirt the law.
Part of the problem, attorneys say, is that prosecutors
aren't using other criminal charges to pursue cases. In the current outbreak
stemming from tainted peanut butter,
Eric Greenberg, a Chicago-based attorney who defends food and drug companies, said some prosecutors also may shy away from such cases because they take time and manpower for an agency that's already stretched thin.
"It's not a high hill to climb for a prosecutor," he said. "It takes a lot of time, but in terms of what they have to prove, it's not too difficult to prosecute because they don't have to prove intent."
There are signs the political will may be shifting toward more aggressive prosecution.
On Friday, President Barack Obama pledged more oversight of food safety to prevent breakdowns in inspections, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president plans to put in place a "stricter regulatory structure" to bolster the food safety network.
State and federal lawmakers are also considering a host of changes to food safety policy, including a measure that could require companies to submit all test results to the FDA. Federal officials say Peanut Corp. did not initially tell investigators about in-house test results that found salmonella.
A congressional hearing scheduled in February could also delve into other areas where lawmakers can stiffen penalties.
"I hope this hearing will help bring to light not only what went wrong," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who heads a congressional panel conducting its own inquiry. "But also what FDA and industry can do to prevent future outbreaks." 1-31-09
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