Are you listening, executives? This week, a federal judge in Albany, Georgia, who presided over a criminal case involving peanut products tainted with salmonella, sent out a powerful message. He gave the 61-year-old former top executive of a peanut processing plant 28 years in prison for his role in the outbreak that left nine dead and over 700 ill.
This is the harshest punishment ever given by a court to a company executive for allowing contaminated food products to be released for consumption by consumers. His co-defendant brother, who brokered sales of the peanut products, and the plant's quality assurance manager, received sentences of 20 and five years, respectively for their roles in the breach.
Last year, Georgia jurors found the chief executive officer guilty of 72 felony charges, including introducing adulterated foods into interstate commerce, conspiracy and fraud. Never before had corporate executives been prosecuted for felonies in tainted food cases; prior outbreaks resulted only in misdemeanor charges. However, the Department of Justice sought — and won — the felony convictions due to overwhelming evidence against the defendants.
Two other company managers testified for the prosecution in exchange for plea bargains with the government. Prosecutors subpoenaed 45 witnesses and submitted over 1,000 documents detailing the executives' knowledge and complicity in the 2008 outbreak that involved consumers in 46 states. The contamination launched one of the biggest food recalls in our nation's history, affecting peanut butter, cookies, airline snacks and packs of crackers.
One piece of evidence was the CEO's email to the facility manager regarding tainted products. Three words, "Just ship it," were particularly damning.
Survivors of the deceased victims also lobbied the court for restitution in the amount of $500,000.
The precedent-setting case "means that executives will no longer be able to hide behind the corporate veil," a U.S. Attorney with Georgia's Middle District stated.
Criminal charges don't have to be filed in order for consumers to seek restitution in civil courts from negligent individuals or companies responsible for food-borne illnesses from contaminated products.
Source: CNN, "28 years for salmonella: Peanut exec gets groundbreaking sentence," Moni Basu, Sep. 22, 2015