Crime and punishment

In Featured Posts by Prof9 Comments

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.


ProfCrime and punishment


  1. Jennifer

    As someone whose goal is to be a quality assurance manager at a meat plant one day, these situations where litigation occurred because of a mistake really concern me. It’s truly scary to think that you can make one major mistake and kill someone or multiple people. And if that wasn’t scary enough, now you can go to jail for years because of a mistake. BUT then again, I think that fear of potentially being in serious legal trouble because of a food safety issue is a good thing because it keeps you very cautious and very honest. If you try to cover up a mistake in order to make more profit and ship out more product, well then you truly are greedy and completely thoughtless, therefore you should be eligible for jail or very hefty fines.

  2. Lauren

    I 100 percent agree with Jennifer’s comment. I think that it is unjust and morally wrong for a company to KNOWINGLY distribute an unsafe product to consumers. There is absolutely no reason for a dangerous act like this other than to earn a profit and doing so under these circumstances is not acceptable. The Peanut Corp. of America definitely deserve the lengthy, pricey punishment that the law delivered.
    I think that farmers and companies that have the unfortunate circumstances of contaminated food do deserve punishment, because whether they were aware of the toxins, bacteria, etc in their food, the processes that they are using obviously aren’t up to standard because they distributed food that caused sickness and death to numerous people.
    As stated already, the laws in place ensure that food manufacturers and processing plants are sticking very strict to their procedures without falling through the cracks and the companies that choose to cut corners and harm consumers, will suffer the consequences. I think we have a pretty good thing going in our food system in the U.S. under the circumstances.

  3. Rebecca

    I am very back and fourth on how I feel about getting jail time for this kind of occurrence. I am sure there are some outbreaks that happen without the company knowing. But I do agree with the previous two comments, if the company willingly sent out their contaminated product, then they deserved the punishment they received. I had never really realized that food safety was such a big issue until the peanut butter outbreak happened. I think it is scary, especially hoping that I will be in the industry someday that these kind of outbreaks have such big effects on the company and the people that work for them.

  4. Kelsey

    I think that if someone knows that their product is contaminated and allows it to be distributed and consumed, they should be subject to whatever punishment they are given, especially if their actions result in the loss of lives. It is simply unacceptable for a company to willingly allow their compromised product to be sold. I like to think of the food industry as an industry that does whatever it can to ensure that the consumers will be buying food that is safe. Personally, I do not understand how a company can knowingly put the lives of people in danger and do nothing about it. Depending on the severity of the outbreak and under certain circumstances, jail time should be an option.

  5. Luke

    if the CEOs of the companies know that their product is tainted, why would they try to conceal the fact and still sell the product? these CEOs should be jailed since they knowingly endangered dozens of people’s lives but the I don’t understand why federal authorities pushed for jail time for the companies who didn’t know. I wouldn’t ever expect cantaloupes to be infected with listeria. I understand that the want to protect consumers but it is wrong to unfairly punish those who held no ill intent towards their consumers.

  6. Mae

    I do see eye to eye with what the federal authorities are trying to achieve by penalizing guilty companies – people’s lives are at risk. However, I do not find it appropriate for them to punish those who had no clue that their products are tainted to the extend where they would have to serve some time in jail. It is unfair to discipline them in a way similar to those companies who knowingly distribute unsafe products to consumers merely for profit.

  7. Kaylee

    It is extremely significant to make sure companies are doing a good job to ensure all food products are safe. I find it interesting that these people are getting jail time/probabtion because it is a huge consequence and can result in a lot of deaths. I believe it is a smart thing to do because these people need to be held accountable because if they are not it could easily happen again. If I ever become a parent and my child were to have died from a foodborne illness that could have been prevented, I would be furious. So in the sense that testing is extremely important, I hope all companies are making huge strides to make this happen. A lot of companies do not want to face foodborne illness cases because it could potentially tear their company apart so like you said, people will think twice about it letting an unsafe product hit the market.

  8. Courtney

    It is scary to think about how many lives the food industry has in their hands. One mistake could cause numerous deaths , for example, from something as simple as eating peanut butter. I think that if a company knows that their products are contaminated and chooses to sell them anyway, then there should be consequences. Things such as jail time, fines, and product recalls should be instilled to ensure companies are doing their best to keep consumers safe.

  9. Ashley

    The recent punishments for those in charge of food companies associated with outbreaks are both scary and justified to me.
    Looking at these punishments through the eyes of a food science student hoping to make the jump to industry someday, is scary. While working, in the back of your mind there will always be the realization that a simple mistake could lead to someone’s death. The fear increases when you think about what production actually looks like. Between the rush to get things done in order to keep up with demands and amount you have to rely on others is no comforting realization. It is all just information that helps keep you on your toes and paying attention while on the job.
    Looking at these punishments through the eyes of the consumer I see them as justified. In the cases reported in the blog entry, no one that exposed consumers to contaminated products accidentally served significant jail time. Only those that did it knowingly served significant time. Americans believe that they have the right to safe food and a violation of that knowingly should be punished, especially when there is death involved.
    Food scientists and consumers will never see eye to eye on what the punishment for an outbreak should be. But, I think everyone can agree, food scientist or consumer, that something should be done.

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