Enforcement changes in the food industry
On Sept. 26, the two owners of Jensen Farms, were arrested for shipping adulterated food in 2011. The charge was shipping contaminated cantaloupe, which resulted in the death of 33 people and sickened 147 people. The two brothers were arrested on misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into commerce. Each man faces six counts of violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. They pleaded not guilty in federal court, with a trial scheduled for Dec. 2.
If convicted, the brothers are subject to one year in prison and $250,000 in fines on each count. The charges against them involve the shipment of cantaloupe that bore the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. Based on observations by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigators during their inspection of the facility, these individuals were also charged with preparing, packing and holding the cantaloupe under conditions that rendered it injurious to consumer health. This charge was due to the unsanitary conditions observed in the facility and with the design of the equipment used in processing the melons.
What’s the impact?
The two individuals actually attempted to enhance their food-safety program by washing their melons and purchased a commercial washer, implemented sanitation programs and hired a third-party inspection service. These efforts are similar to what many others in the food-supply chain have done, as required by their customers.
In this case, these well-meaning efforts didn’t play out as intended. The resulting serious food-safety problems, illnesses and deaths, as well as the recall, economic loss, litigation, bankruptcy, regulatory problems, legal problems and potential for prison time were surely not the intention these company officials. All of this also doesn’t take into consideration the psychological impact this issue has had on so many people, from those working at the plant to consumers.
Certainly, this case has a far-reaching impact on the food industry, well beyond this processing facility and these individuals. The outcome of this case will have an impact across the entire food-supply chain and will result in revisions in supply specifications, supplier approvals, purchasing agreements and inspections. It may also require more management oversight of the supply chain.
Changing enforcement climate
Federal regulatory inspections will continue to be more in-depth with an increase in citations. FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg says that the agency will increase the appropriate use of misdemeanor prosecutions as a valuable enforcement tool to hold responsible corporate officials accountable when food adulteration conditions subject the public to serious health risks. The agency has revived the 1975 Park Doctrine—a Supreme Court decision—on holding corporate officials responsible for food safety.
U.S. attorney John Walsh’s statement in the Sept. 23 Department of Justice release regarding cantaloupe talks about the food processors’ responsibility: “As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that the food they produce and sell is not dangerous to the public. Where they fail to live up to that responsibility, and as these charges demonstrate, this office and the FDA have a responsibility to act forcefully to enforce the law.”
These regulatory and legal actions should certainly encourage food company officials to look carefully at the effectiveness of their food-safety measures, beginning with senior management support through all management levels.
All food management should have an understanding of the FDA definition of food adulteration as it is outlined in Chapter IV of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This should be required reading.
Educating those involved in food production and stricter oversight of regulatory compliance will lead to a better understanding of food safety and in meeting consumer expectations.
Author Gale Prince is founder and president of SAGE Food Safety Consultants, LLC, Cincinnati, which offers guidance and solutions to issues such as crisis management, food safety, regulatory compliance and quality assurance.