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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

As Expected, Blue Bell Under Criminal Investigation

CBS News just reported that the Department of Justice has started an investigation into Blue Bell after their ice cream was linked to a deadly Listeria outbreak earlier this year that killed three people. Sources told CBS News that the Department of Justice is trying to determine what Blue Bell management knew about potentially deadly hazards in their plants, and when they knew it.

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 6.12.22 AMLast May I wrote, “Paul Kruse, President and CEO of Blue Bell Ice Cream – My Advice, Get a Good Criminal Lawyer.” Seems like I was on the money.

After watching the Blue Bell Listeria Outbreak unfold over the last months – especially after reading the FDA’s 483’s, I think it is time for the President and CEO of Blue Bell to consult with criminal counsel.  True, perhaps he did not know that his Broken Arrow Plant had Listeria positives going back over years, but knowledge is not necessary for the FDA and a US Attorney to prosecute – just ask the Jensens and DeCosters.

Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938 in reaction to growing public safety demands.  The primary goal of the Act was to protect the health and safety of the public by preventing deleterious, adulterated or misbranded articles from entering interstate commerce.  Under section 402(a)(4) of the Act, a food product is deemed “adulterated” if the food was “prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.” A food product is also considered “adulterated” if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health.  The 1938 Act, and the recently signed Food Safety Modernization Act, stand today as the primary means by which the federal government enforces food safety standards.

Chapter III of the Act addresses prohibited acts, subjecting violators to both civil and criminal liability. Provisions for criminal sanctions are clear:

Felony violations include adulterating or misbranding a food, drug, or device, and putting an adulterated or misbranded food, drug, or device into interstate commerce.  Any person who commits a prohibited act violates the FDCA.  A person committing a prohibited act “with the intent to defraud or mislead” is guilty of a felony punishable by years in jail and millions in fines or both.

A misdemeanor conviction under the FDCA, unlike a felony conviction, does not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct.  Rather, a person may be convicted if he or she held a position of responsibility or authority in a firm such that the person could have prevented the violation.  Convictions under the misdemeanor provisions are punishable by not more than one year or fined not more than $250,000, or both.

The legal jargon aside, if you are a producer of food and knowingly or not sell adulterated food, you can (and should) face fines and jail time.  Mr. Kruse, I know you are a lawyer, but you should get another one.

The inspection observations of the most recent completed FDA inspections at the Blue Bell production facilities in Brenham, Texas, Broken Arrow, Okla., and Sylacauga, Ala. are available: