Of all the food issues discussed in class, perhaps the one that hits closest to home is food safety. It’s important not only personally (who wants to spend a nice fall day in the bathroom), but also as professional food scientists.
Hopefully, you will eventually graduate and get a job in the food industry. The worst think that can happen to a food company, whether it’s small or a large multinational, is to have one if its products implicated in a food poisoning outbreak. That’s why knowledge about food microbiology, quality assurance plans like HACCP (to be discussed in class), and appropriate testing methods are so important.
The consequences of sending contaminated food into the marketplace can be significant. Even if the contaminated food is detected before any consumer actually gets sick, recalls are very expensive. If there is a disease outbreak, then civil law suits will surely follow. The more serious the outbreak, the higher will be the cost. It’s not unusual for a companies literally to go broke from food poisoning outbreaks. This is true for larger companies, but especially so for small or family businesses.
Recently, it’s gotten worse for guilty companies. In the past, criminal charges were rare and limited to fines. In the past several years, however, federal authorities have asked the courts to sentence the company leaders to jail time. This is especially the case when the outbreaks lead to serious illnesses or deaths. Several examples have made the news.
In 2011, Listeria-contaminated cantaloupe from Colorado killed 33 people. Three years later, the farmers (two brothers) were sentenced to five years’ probation (but no jail time) and six months home detention. They were also fined $150,000 in restitution.
In 2010, a Salmonella outbreak in eggs sickened 2,000 people. The producers were fined nearly $7 million in 2014, and earlier in 2015, the executives of Iowa-based Quality Egg were sentenced to three months in jail.
Then there is the most recent case of crime and punishment. In 2009, nine people died and hundred became sick from eating peanut butter products made by Peanut Corp. of America that were contaminated with Salmonella. The company knowingly released and distributed tainted products and concealed records. As a result, the former owner was given a 28-year prison sentence. Two other employees were also given jail time (3 years for one, 6 for the other). This will certainly make others think twice before committing these sorts of crimes.