I got the opportunity to talk with Alexandra Sifferlin of Time for her story, “When tainted peanuts could mean life in prison” about the upcoming sentencing on September 21 of Stewart Parnell and others who ran the Peanut Corporation of America. Although I will not be at the sentencing, I did have a few thoughts I shared with Ms. Sifferlin:
Some food safety lawyers are puzzling over why some cases are taken to court and others are not. In the last three years, there have been four major cases in which U.S. prosecutors have achieved convictions for foodborne outbreak cases. In 2014, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen of Jensen Farms received five years probation and $150,000 each in fines for their role in a cantaloupe listeria outbreak that sickened more than 140 people and killed more than 30. In 2015, Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster of Quality Egg LLC were sentenced to three months in jail for a 2010 salmonella outbreak, which they are appealing.
But legal action appears to be applied unevenly, say some on the field. “If you’re charging the DeCosters and the Jensens, what about the people behind the current cucumber outbreak that has 341 people sick and two dead? Is there a threshold? Do you have to kill 10 or 20 people?” says Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer. “One of the things that the FDA and U.S. attorneys are going to have to struggle with is, if you go down this road, how far are you going to go? That’s the dialogue that the public and prosecutors need to have.”
This has food manufacturers spooked. While speaking to industry members at several recent food safety conferences, Marler says he’s witnessed many moments of panic. “People are going, Really? I could be charged with a crime?’” he says. “There’s no question that this is on people’s radar. I see people talking about Stewart Parnell and saying, That would never happen to me, but then they look at DeCoster or Jensen and think, Wait a second, that could easily happen to me.”