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Justice In Food Poisoning Indictment Is Too Little, Too Late

February 22nd, 2013
Center for Food Safety

Four Peanut Corporation Of America Executives Indicted For 2009 Food Poisoning Episode Linked To 9 Deaths, 700 Sick

Center for Food Safety Calls for Immediate Passage of Food Safety Accountability Act

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) finally indicted four executive officers of the now bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America. These officers, led by Stewart Parnell, the company president, deliberately shipped peanuts contaminated with salmonella. In 2008 and 2009 more than 700 people were sickened and 9 people are known to have died as a result of salmonella-tainted peanut products. While this indictment brings some measure of relief to the families affected by this tragedy, the long delay and weak charges highlight the inadequate power of DOJ to properly prosecute criminal behavior in our food system. 

“It is high time that Congress assure the American people that swift and proper justice will be served for criminals like Mr. Parnell,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director at the Center for Food Safety. “It should not have taken four years for the Justice Department and the Food and Drug Administration to bring charges against these executives who knowingly shipped poisoned food that sickened and killed consumers.”

The 76-count criminal indictment, disclosed yesterday, accused the four company officers of engaging “in multiple schemes to defraud the company’s customers.” While in this case the Justice Department is able to bring wire fraud charges, according to current law, sale of peanuts adulterated with salmonella alone would only bring possible penalties of one year in jail and a fine of $1000.

The Food Safety Accountability Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, would increase the penalty for knowingly distributing contaminated or misbranded food from a misdemeanor to a felony under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent on April 14, 2011 was not passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Passage of the Food Safety Accountability Act would assure us that greedy criminals like Mr. Parnell will receive felony convictions and real jail time for committing such heinous acts,” added Colin O’Neil, Director of Government Affairs at the Center for Food Safety. “Congress should send a message that this type of crime will not be taken lightly.”

Foodborne illness undermines our nation’s economy and prevents millions of Americans from going to work and school. Each year 70 million Americans are sickened, 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die from foodborne illness.

According to a report released by the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, the fourteen most common foodborne pathogens cost $14.1 billion and present a significant public health burden. Peanuts, lettuce, pistachios, spinach, peppers and tomatoes are among the foods that have sickened and killed Americans in just the last few years. Children are most at risk from contaminated food, half of all foodborne illness strikes children under 15 years old.

This is the first time in recent history that someone has been indicted for poisoning and sickening consumers with adulterated food. The Center commends the Justice Department for taking much needed and long overdue action.

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About Center for Food Safety

Center for Food Safety is a national, non-profit, membership organization founded in 1997 to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. CFS maintains offices in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, California and Portland, Oregon. More information can be found at www.centerforfoodsafety.org.

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