Two recent legal cases indicate that courts are willing to hold food corporation executives responsible for introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
Courts have shown a willingness to sentence “responsible” executives to jail terms, whether or not they were aware of the contamination.
This legal trend is illustrated by a 2010 salmonella outbreak involving contaminated eggs from Quality Egg LLC. Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster were the owners of Quality Egg during a massive salmonella outbreak that led to 56,000 illnesses. In 2014, Quality Egg pled guilty to felony charges involving bribing a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector and introducing misbranded eggs into interstate commerce. Quality Egg paid $6.8 million in penalties and the DeCosters pled guilty to misdemeanor violations as responsible corporate officers under the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic (FD&C) Act.
In their plea agreement, Jack and Peter DeCoster said that though they were not aware of the egg contamination at the time the eggs were shipped, they were in positions of authority where they could have averted or rectified the situation if they had they been aware. The violation carried the potential of one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. The sentencing court found no evidence that the DeCosters had concrete knowledge of the salmonella-tainted eggs, but the court found their business practices shocking and said the case involved more than “a mere unaware corporate executive.” The DeCosters were each sentenced to three months in prison and were fined $100,000.
In July 2016, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the DeCosters’ sentence. A petition was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court over whether a corporate official may be jailed for something about he or she was ignorant. If the court declines to consider the petition, the DeCosters must serve the prison time. Experts say this would send a message to food company corporate officers that they must understand what they may not know about their firm’s actions.
In another significant case, in 2015, a Georgia jury convicted Stewart Parnell, owner of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) on 72 counts of conspiracy, fraud, and the introduction of adulterated foods into interstate commerce. A salmonella outbreak traced to PCA peanut butter was linked to nine deaths and more than 700 illnesses in 46 states, CNN reported. Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison. His brother, Michael, was sentenced to 20 years, and Mary Wilkerson, the plant’s quality assurance manager received a five-year sentence.
The PCA case was the first time a food executive was convicted on federal felony charges associated with a food poisoning outbreak.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has indicated that in unsafe food situations, it will not wait for a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) referral but will investigate and pursue situations that threaten the food safety and will hold corporate executives individually accountable for illegal conduct.
Legal experts now ask, based on the food safety cases, if executives of drug and medical device companies should be subject to similar treatment when their products are linked to injuries and deaths.