Today, food safety advocates are cheering the unprecedented magnitude of judicial sentences delivered against two company executives (who also happen to be brothers) who knowingly sent peanut butter tainted with salmonella into interstate commerce. A federal judge in Georgia sentenced one brother to 28 years in jail and the other to 20 years (a plant manager also received a five year jail sentence).
The case was brought under a rarely used power vested in the Food and Drug Administration to hold employees of corporations criminally liable for violations of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).
The sentence is being touted as a victory for food safety generally and brings some closure to the families who lost loved ones or suffered illness after eating the peanut butter. Most significantly, it is hoped that the sentences will serve as a deterrent against future instances of food fraud and adulteration.
Still, we can learn more than just deterrence from this case. I think it is safe to conclude that the majority of food-borne illness outbreaks do not happen quite so purposefully, but rather because of a breakdown in food safety controls at some point along the production line. What the food industry also needs to take away from this case is the significance of our food safety laws and the necessity of maintaining a robust and transparent system focused on preventative controls and communication. Just in the last few months, we have seen profound foodborne illness outbreaks in ice cream, more ice creamcilantro and cucumbers. In each case, food safety auditing, epidemiological surveillance and communication between government officials and corporate executives was the key ingredient in stopping the sale of the contaminated product. Tragically, the Parnell brother’s salmonella-tainted peanut butter slipped through the cracks. Hopefully their story will guide repair of any lingering holes in the system.