Food Safety in U.S. Runs on "Honor System"
The first-ever federal criminal trial stemming from a deadly foodborne illness outbreak in 2008-09 has revealed a shocking fact: The nation’s food safety structure largely runs on an “honor system.”
Witnesses have testified that Stewart Parnell and others at Peanut Corp. of America knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted peanut products. They say the company also sent customers lab results from other, clean batches rather than wait for tests to confirm their products were free of the bacteria.
But they weren’t breaking any laws in doing so – aside from the law of common decency. Defense lawyers reminded jurors that salmonella tests aren’t required by federal law. And, they still aren’t today.
Parnell and his two co-defendants face long prison sentences if convicted of knowingly shipping the contaminated peanut products, which were linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened 714 across 43 states. The tainted peanut butter ended up in ice cream, energy bars and other products, prompting one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and bankrupting Peanut Corp. of Blakely, Ga.
But Stewart Parnell, his brother and food broker, Michael Parnell, and quality-assurance manager Mary Wilkerson aren’t charged with killing anybody. The death toll won’t even be mentioned to jurors.
The 76-count indictment only accuses the Parnell brothers of defrauding the customers that used Peanut Corp.’s contaminated products as ingredients. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson are also charged with concealing information from federal investigators.
Even still, only a few of Peanut Corp.’s customers (Kellogg’s was one) required the company to prove its shipments were free of salmonella, so those were the only ones that were technically defrauded. Isn’t that reassuring?
“If they didn’t require it, it did not get tested,” Samuel Lightsey, who managed the Georgia plant during the outbreak, told jurors Friday, according to the Seattle Times.
Lightsey plead out and agreed to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Food and Drug Administration investigators eventually found that lab tests had showed contamination in the plant’s chopped nuts, peanut butter or peanut paste 12 times during the two years before the outbreak. That’s a lot of bacteria.
According to witness Janet Gray, an FDA inspector, at least eight of those salmonella-tainted lots were shipped to customers anyway. (Keeping records of testing for bacteria is also voluntary, according to testimony from another FDA investigator in the trial.)
Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, which was supposed to give the FDA more resources and enforcement power. However, most of its rules have not been published, and the FDA still doesn’t require that products be free of salmonella when shipped – and it just announced last week that it still considers antibiotic-resistant salmonella “naturally occurring” and thus not subject to forced recall. The Center for Food Safety actually had to sue the FDA to win a federal consent decree ordering the agency to implement the law by next year.
Salmonella causes an estimated 1.2 million illnesses every year in the United States, with about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Three other cases — a salmonella outbreak traced to eggs in Iowa, a listeria outbreak blamed on dirty cantaloupes in Colorado and an E. coli outbreak linked to Odwalla juices in California — resulted in federal plea deals with no prison time. This is the first case actually to go to trial.
Since the government doesn’t seem to take the matter seriously, many victims of foodborne illness have had to take their cases to civil court.
Last week, in response to a 16-month-long salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken, the FDA announced it would be reducing the number of its inspectors in poultry plants by 770 positions.
Yes, you read that right. So cook the hell out of your poultry, and prepare to lawyer up, because when it comes to food safety, the government is clearly chicken shit.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.