This week two former egg industry executives received three month long jail sentences for their roles in a major 2010 Salmonella outbreak. Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster’s Quality Egg company will pay a $6.8 million fine as part of a plea agreement, and the DeCosters individually paid $100,000.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked 1,939 illnesses to the outbreak, but officials estimate that up to 56,000 people may have been sickened. The three-month sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett are noteworthy because only a handful of cases of corporate misconduct end with executives behind bars. The extent of harm caused by the outbreak and the pattern of problems led to the decision for jail time.
In the past 18 months, two Colorado cantaloupe farmers were convicted and received probation in a deadly 2011 listeria outbreak, and the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America was convicted in a 2008 salmonella outbreak. The peanut executive, Stewart Parnell, also could face jail time when sentenced.
United States v. Park 421 U.S. 658 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1975) was decided just a few months after I graduated from High School, and long before I decided (as one food pundit coined), to become the “the Assassin in Armani” – at least to the food industry.
Park is an interesting (and seldom used) case where the Court ruled that Mr. Park, the CEO of Acme International (Acme Markets, Inc., was a national retail food chain with approximately 36,000 employees, 874 retail outlets, 12 general warehouses, and four special warehouses), had failed to comply with the Federal Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics Act (FDCA), to keep conditions within his warehouses sanitary. Rats and rat feces were found in two of the company’s warehouses (on more that one occasion) and the FDA had warned Acme to clean it up. There appears to have been no reported illnesses. At trial Acme pled guilty, but Park claimed he was not personally responsible for the violations. The jury disagreed and he was ultimately fined $50 per violation. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
In part, the focus of the Court’s opinion was whether “the manager of a corporation, as well as the corporation itself, may be prosecuted under the FDCA for the introduction of misbranded and adulterated articles into interstate commerce.” The Court concluded the answer to be yes. In fact, the Court found that “[t]he Act imposes upon persons exercising authority and supervisory responsibility reposed in them by a business organization not only a positive duty to seek out and remedy violations but also, and primarily, a duty to implement measures that will insure that violations will not occur, … [I]n order to make food distributors the strictest censors of their merchandise, … the Act punishes “neglect where the law requires care, or inaction where it imposes a duty.”
The Court further looked to the purposes of the Act and noted that they “touch phases of the lives and health of people which, in the circumstances of modern industrialism, are largely beyond self-protection.” It observed that the Act is of “a now familiar type, “which” dispenses with the conventional requirement for criminal conduct – awareness of some wrongdoing. In the interest of the larger good it puts the burden of acting at hazard upon a person otherwise innocent but standing in responsible relation to a public danger.”
Thus, the Court reaffirmed the proposition that “the public interest in the purity of its food is so great as to warrant the imposition of the highest standard of care on distributors.”
Today a misdemeanor conviction under the FDCA still, unlike a felony conviction, does not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct. Rather, a person may be convicted if he or she held a position of responsibility or authority in a firm such that the person could have prevented the violation. Convictions under the misdemeanor provisions are punishable by not more than one year or fined not more than $250,000, or both.
My strong suspicion is that those that produce and sell food are now paying a bit more attention.