Four months ago, Iowa egg producers Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter, were each sentenced to 90 days in prison for their role in the nation’s largest egg-related salmonella outbreak.
Now, however, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the National Association of Manufacturers and other major business organizations are fighting to keep the DeCosters out of prison.
They’ve filed briefs with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with the DeCosters in arguing that while fines and probation are acceptable in such cases, it’s unconstitutional to put corporate executives behind bars for the criminal actions of their underlings.
It’s an interesting case with major legal and ethical implications. After all, mere fines aren’t much of a deterrent to executives who collect multi-million-dollar salaries. But a 90-day stint in prison, as the DeCosters themselves argue in their court filings, carries with it the “personal loss and stigma” associated with becoming a convict.
In this case, a prison sentence certainly seems warranted. The Quality Egg salmonella outbreak of 2010 sickened at least 56,000 people and triggered a record-setting recall of more than half a billion eggs.
As to whether the DeCosters themselves were to blame for the outbreak, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett found the two men had created a “culture of rampant safety violations” and a “work environment where employees not only felt comfortable disregarding regulations and bribing USDA officials, but may have even felt pressure to do so.”
According to federal authorities, Quality Egg routinely, for at least three years, provided false paperwork to auditors who inspected the plant and reviewed company records to ensure egg safety. On at least two occasions, Quality Egg officials bribed a USDA inspector to overlook regulatory violations in return for cash. For at least eight years, the company regularly shipped eggs that were labeled with falsified processing dates and expiration dates to conceal the fact that the eggs were old.
Were Jack and Peter DeCoster — whose companies had previously violated regulations dealing not just with salmonella, but with the minimum wage, pollution, workplace safety, animal cruelty, child labor and the hiring of undocumented immigrants — conscientious business executives repeatedly victimized by rogue, low-level employees?
Hardly. The DeCosters either facilitated, or were willfully blind to, the crimes that transpired on their watch. As “responsible corporate officers,” the two voluntarily pleaded guilty to the crime of introducing contaminated eggs into the nation’s food supply.
Now the National Association of Manufacturers, which has told the appeals court it “has a substantial interest in ensuring that executives at companies that are members of NAM are not subject to prison sentences,” is arguing that the DeCosters shouldn’t go to jail, even for one day.
“If executives can be imprisoned for criminal violations of strict liability laws by virtue of the position they hold within a company, the United States economy would suffer,” the association says in its court filing. “Executive business decisions would be motivated less by good business principles and more by fear of possible future prison sentences.”
That is pure claptrap.
Decisions driven by “good business principles” don’t lend themselves to criminal prosecution. On the other hand, executives who facilitate and profit from crimes committed by their hired hands should not be exempt from the full measure of the law.
Tens of thousands of people were sickened as a direct result of the manner in which the DeCosters managed — or, rather, mismanaged — Quality Egg and its employees. For that, the DeCosters should be held accountable. A prison sentence is entirely appropriate.