Two days after federal officials discovered that Peanut Corporation of America knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products 12 times in the last 2 years, they launched a criminal investigation.
Soon there followed a public lynching on Capitol Hill and a liquidation filing under Chapter 7 of Virginia’s bankruptcy laws.
That was fast.
The salmonella outbreak has sickened 637 people in 43 states and killed at least 8. Nearly 2,000 products have been recalled.
“A criminal investigation has been initiated through (the FDA’s) office of criminal investigation. (It has) to work through the Department of Justice to develop a case and prosecute, if that’s what it comes to,” Stephen Sundlof told the Washington Post.
Sundlof is director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA.
The investigation might or might not trigger felony charges against PCA and its management team, according to Michael Taylor, a one-time food safety official at the FDA now at George Washington University.
“Under the food safety law, if you ship an adulterated food in interstate commerce, that violates one of the so-called prohibited acts and can be prosecuted criminally,” Taylor told the Post.
“Food can be considered adulterated if it is produced under unsanitary conditions.”
According to Taylor, the penalties for relevant misdemeanors top out at a fine of $1,000 plus a year in prison per offence. For felonies, the maximum punishment is a $10,000 fine and 5 years in jail.
No one knows yet whether it’s possible to file separate claims for each tainted lot, or how the bankruptcy filing will affect progression of the criminal investigation.
“The penalties are relatively light,” Taylor said. “If the facts are…as…reported, you have a company that was knowingly and recklessly shipping products from a facility known to be contaminated with salmonella,” he told the Post.
“The question is whether the criminal remedies in the Food and Drug Act are sufficient, given the severity of the harm.”
Looks like we know the answer to that.