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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Senator Leahy Asks DOJ For Update On Peanut Corp. Of America Investigation

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sent a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, requesting information on the Department’s investigation into the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).  In 2009, more than 2,000 products containing peanuts processed at PCA were recalled for possible salmonella contamination.  A Food and Drug Administration report stated that PCA knowingly sold peanut products containing salmonella.

Tainted products processed by the Peanut Corporation of America caused more than 700 people to fall ill and resulted in the deaths of nine people.  The president of PCA, Stewart Parnell, refused to testify before Congress about the contamination.  A 7-year-old South Burlington, Vermont, boy fell ill from salmonella tainted products from PCA, and in 2009, his mother, Gabrielle Meunier testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee about her son’s illness.  Leahy is a senior member of the Agriculture Committee.

“Two years ago, I wrote to the Department urging a full criminal investigation into this matter,” wrote Leahy.  “At the time, the Department was unable to comment with specificity but confirmed that an investigation was ongoing and that it was uncertain whether additional legal authorities were needed…I hope that there has been a thorough criminal investigation into PCA’s conduct at the least, and that if appropriate, criminal charges are aggressively pursued. To the extent possible consistent with ongoing investigations, I request an update on the Department’s investigation into the PCA matter.”

Leahy is the author of the Food Safety Accountability Act, which would strengthen criminal penalties against those who knowingly violate food safety standards, imposing stricter prison sentences and fines for individuals or corporations that contaminate the nation’s food supply by knowingly distributing contaminated food products with a disregard for consumer safety.  Recent recalls of tainted food products, including nationwide recalls of certain eggs and peanut products, led Leahy to first introduce legislation in July 2010.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, unanimously approved the legislation in September 2010, but the Senate failed to act on the bill.  Leahy reintroduced the legislation in January.

  • Bill Anderson

    “which would strengthen criminal penalties against those who knowingly violate food safety standards, imposing stricter prison sentences and fines for individuals or corporations that contaminate the nation’s food supply by knowingly distributing contaminated food products with a disregard for consumer safety.”
    Bill, what is to keep this law (if enacted) from being used maliciously against small farmers who sell raw milk, even if they have never made anyone sick? After all, in the opinion of FDA and many state-level agencies, all raw milk is inherintly dangerous no matter how it is produced, and its sale or distribution would constitute a violation of food safety standards.
    What happens when the day comes that even raw vegetables are considered “contaminated food products”? Will every little organic vegetable farm be required to buy expensive equipment and facilities for irradiating all vegetables?
    You know that the Sherman anti-trust act of 1890 was first used against organized labor, don’t you, Bill? Big business always has a way of turning laws designed to be used against them into a tool to be used against the little guy. I’m afraid the same will be true of this law.

  • No big or little guys have been prosecuted – to date.

  • dog doctor

    I find it strange that Mr. Anderson jumps in with the raw milk issue when the article is about PCA and their activity. PCA supposedly had positive samples and shipped anyway. I am assuming no moral food producer would do that so why bring up raw milk?
    Additional it appears Mr. Anderson wants all small producer exempted from all regulation and responsibility. I was wondering if he wanted this extended to his auto mechanic, plumber, and other small businesses he deals with ? Or is this only for small food producers? Would he want to sue a mechanic if he failed to fix his brakes properly? Or a carpenter if he left out every other stud since the carpenter knew from experience that you normally didn’t need all those studs? Just trying to figure who Mr. Anderson wanted regulated and held accountable for their actions.

  • Jeff Almer

    Bill Anderson:
    While I can understand what you are saying about prosecutions going a bit off the deep end eventually, the thing to remember out of this is “knowingly distributing contaminated food products with a disregard for consumer safety.” There has to be a history of someone totally disregarding ethical production of food.
    The reverse of this would be to not do anything towards a filth bucket operation such as PCA. All evidence produced in Congress shows Stewart Parnell and Sammy Lightsey the plant manager, KNEW that the product had tested positive for salmonella. One Lightsey response after receiving notification on a specific lot of peanut paste having left the dock with positive tested contaminated product, was that the truck had already left. Apparently Mr. Lightsey is not aware of the concept of requesting the shipment be stopped and the truck turned around.
    Of course there are also the very damning Parnell emails produced in Congress showing his knowledge of the garbage they were shipping out. Those are the ones that were focused on then.
    One may ask why if they were so damaging, why have they not been prosecuted? That’s the conundrum in all this. The fact is that the penalties currently in place are not anywhere close to what an individual such as Parnell deserves for sickening so many and killing 9 others.
    This stronger prosecution law is designed to update an area, that frankly was not focused upon before. Can anyone believe the total lack of ethics that PCA continued to display and got away with for so long? To flout all common sensibilities in the name of the almighty dollar?
    We have to believe this law will be in place to convict criminals such as Parnell. Those who show a willingness to operate their business in as forthright a manner as possible but still sicken others through no fault of their doing will not be prosecuted. That just makes common sense.

  • Gil Ramirez

    How have they not thrown this scumbag in jail yet? Lock him up and throw away the key, I say…

  • Bill Anderson

    I funamentally have no objection to basic food safety regulations or to prosecution of corporate criminals. My objection is to how regulations designed for big industry are turned against small farmers.
    The raw milk issue is very relevant here, because of how this has continually played out in state after state: One farm with bad practices makes people sick. EVERY farm that sells raw milk is targetted for prosecution, because it is decided that all raw milk is inherintly dangerous.
    I have witnessed this firsthand. Numerous farms who have never made anyone sick are targetted for prosecution simply the dairy processing corporations pressure the health authorities to crackdown.
    I would not limit this to raw milk. It is only a matter of time before other natural foods come into the target screen of the food police. It would be very niave of us to believe that a law like this will not be used maliciously to prosecute small farms, and maintain corporate dominance of the food system.

  • Bill Anderson
  • Bill Anderson

    Take note:
    “Those defending cheesemakers and the age-old methods of their craft find the FDA’s rules and inspections to be over the top. The FDA has zero tolerance for Listeria in cheese, while in most European countries, where producers make many coveted artisan cheeses, regulations allow 100 colony-forming units (cfus) of L. mono, believing that amount is not harmful to consumers. ”

  • Dog Doctor

    Mr. Anderson, USDA has a zero tolerance policy as well for listeria. If you didn’t realize it, the zero tolerance is a united stares government policy. There have been several joint hearing about the matter. Many witnesses were heard from including European cheese makers, but the concerns of those people who had lost loves to Listeria prevail. Perhaps if there are hearing in the future, you can add your “science” and “wisdom” but it was democracy in action where everyone had their say.

  • “The infective dose of L. monocytogenes is unknown but is believed to vary with the strain and susceptibility of the victim.”
    Given that Listeria grows well in a refrigerated environment, 100 may well be frankly too many. And, it is not like France, et al, have not had outbreaks foodborne illnesses related to cheese.
    Bill, I know you are a cheesemaker, but remember, people have died from Listeria or lost their babies.

  • Bill Anderson

    I’m well aware of listeria’s psychrotrophic properties. The ability of listeria to grow is also very dependent on other factors such as pH, water activity, and the presence (or lack) of competative cultures that produce listeriacidal compounds. The latter factor (competative microflora) is where raw milk cheese has a huge advantage over pasteurized.
    “Zero-tolerance” is very problematic. It is more a symptom of Americans paranoid germophobia than it is of genuine concern for science in the interest of public health.

  • Thanks Bill. I will make sure I explain this to the young to be mom that lost her baby to a lovely artisan cheese with listeria.

  • Theresa Kentner

    So, in the following week, I have not been able to find out whether or not Sen. Leahy got any kind of response from the DOJ. Have you?

  • I have not seen anything.

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    To Bill Anderson: Bill, the F&D Cosmetic Act has been enforceable for over 70 years and there have been very few prosecutions especially in the last few decades. I doubt Senator Leahy’s legislation will suddenly trigger prosecutions against raw food producers. What his legislation says to producers is that you must take your food safety in your production seriously. Its not all about your raw milk. I honestly don’t know what all the issue is about this. I lived on a dairy farm for many years and wouldn’t want that responsibility of selling the milk raw. I didn’t drink it raw nor did I feed it to my children raw. But my mother in law (at the time) drank it daily and is still living in her late eighties. We had no one knocking on the doors to drink the milk raw. The cream sits on the top and the milk is heavy.
    This legislation is about taking food safety seriously and as a fore thought as opposed to an after thought. I would hope if you were poisoned by someone who knowingly introduced a food product with salmonella (or other pathogen), that you would want that person responsible, prosecuted. It is about the intent. And the current law has a very little punishment associated. We would like that updated with a stronger punishment. Thats all. It makes sense.