Fixing our food-safety system

This summer, a salmonella outbreak causing hundreds of people to fall ill triggered a national egg recall. The cause of the outbreak is still under investigation, but salmonella poisoning is all too common and is sometimes the result of inexcusable, intentional conduct. And inadequate penalties often make these criminal offenses a mere cost of doing business for food producers and manufacturers across the country. When the Senate returns to session in November, it will consider important food-safety legislation, and the Food Safety Accountability Act should be a part of that effort.

I introduced the Food Safety Accountability Act to hold accountable the criminals who poison our food supply. It increases the sentences that prosecutors can seek for people who knowingly violate our food-safety laws, calling for those who knowingly contaminate our food supply and endanger Americans to receive up to 10 years in jail. It is a commonsense bill, aimed at keeping the American people safe. The bill received unanimous, bipartisan support from the Senate Judiciary Committee, just as it should from the full Senate.

This summer’s salmonella outbreak is just the most recent in a string of food recalls resulting from a tainted food supply. Just last year, a mother from Vermont, Gabrielle Meunier, testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee about her seven-year-old son, Christopher, who became severely ill and was hospitalized for six days after he developed salmonella poisoning from peanut crackers.  Thankfully, Christopher recovered, and Mrs. Meunier was able to share her story, which highlighted for the committee and for the Senate the improvements that are needed in our food-safety system. No parent should have to go through what Mrs. Meunier experienced. The American people should be confident the food they buy for their families is safe.

The peanut outbreak that affected Christopher Meunier was traced to the Peanut Corporation of America. The president of that company came before Congress and invoked his right against self-incrimination, refusing to answer questions about his role in distributing contaminated peanut products.  These products were linked to the deaths of nine people and have sickened more than 600 others. It appears officials at the Peanut Corporation of American knew the company’s products had tested positive for deadly salmonella, but rather than immediately disposing of the products, it sought to distribute and sell them anyway. The evidence suggests the company knowingly put profit above the public’s safety. Our laws must be strengthened to ensure this does not happen again. The Food Safety Accountability Act significantly increases the chances that those who commit food safety crimes will face jail time, rather than a slap on the wrist, for their criminal conduct. 

Current statutes do not provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who knowingly violate the food-safety laws. The fines and recalls that usually result from criminal violations under current law fall short in protecting the public from harmful products. Too often, those who are willing to endanger our children in pursuit of profits view such fines or recalls as merely the cost of doing business. Indeed, at least one of the companies responsible for the eggs at the root of the current salmonella crisis has a long history of environmental, immigration, labor and food-safety violations. It is clear that civil and criminal fines are not enough to protect the public and effectively deter this unacceptable conduct.   We need to make sure that those who knowingly poison the food supply will go to jail. 

I have heard from family members of victims of these tainted products who support this legislation.  Corporations that knowingly contaminate our food supply deserve more than just a slap on the wrist or a small fine. To do less also erodes confidence in America’s food production and supply system, long the envy of the world. The Justice Department must be given the tools it needs to investigate, prosecute and truly deter crime involving food safety. Passing the Food Safety Accountability Act, as well as the Food Safety Modernization Act, is an important step toward making our food supply safer and repairing our broken system.

Sen. Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and  the author of the Food Safety Accountability Act, which the panel unanimously reported in September