The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently launched a criminal investigation of Dole Food Company, continuing a trend of criminal enforcement against those responsible for deadly food safety lapses. The investigation stems from a Listeria outbreak in bagged salad that sickened 33 people, four of whom died.
Between September 2015 and January 2016, 33 people in the U.S. and Canada became infected with Listeria from bagged lettuce processed at Dole's Springfield, Ohio plant. At first, investigators struggled to trace the widespread outbreak back to a source, but genetic fingerprinting allowed inspectors from Ohio to connect the outbreak to the Dole plant. On January 14, 2016, officials inspected the Dole plant and collected samples, which tested positive for Listeria. Dole voluntarily stopped production at the plant on January 21 and issued a voluntary recall on January 27.
Tragically, Dole knew about the Listeria contamination in its plant prior to the outbreak. After the company discovered the dangerous bacteria at the Springfield facility in July 2014, it followed its normal protocols to clean the plant. Despite those efforts, tests came back positive for Listeria in July and September 2014, and subsequent tests uncovered more of the same. In fact, Dole discovered the pathogen in the plant eight times between 2014 and 2015. Incredibly, the company continued to package and sell bagged lettuce processed at the facility until it was implicated in the widespread Listeria outbreak earlier this year.
The plant reopened in April, but the company failed to disclose what additional steps it took to clean the facility this time around, leaving some unsatisfied that Dole has completely resolved its sanitation issues. Just this week, food safety champion Rep. Rosa DeLauro, citing Dole's disregard for public health, called for FDA to shut down the facility.
If you think this narrative sounds familiar – a criminal investigation of a food company that ignored a health risk so severe that it led to hospitalizations and deaths – that's because it's becoming more common.
Several high-profile prosecutions have occurred in the last few years. In September 2015, Stewart Parnell from Peanut Corp. of America received a 28-year sentence for his role in a Salmonella outbreak that resulted in nine deaths. CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor commented on his sentencing, saying, "This sentence shows that the courts are willing to drop the boom on white collar criminal defendants whose elevation of profits over safety goes so far as to kill people."
And in 2014, federal authorities criminally prosecuted the Jensen brothers, owners of a cantaloupe farm that sold Listeria-contaminated melons that caused over 30 deaths and at least 147 illnesses. The Jensens were sentenced to six months home detention and ordered to pay $150,000 each to victims after a judge found them guilty of introducing contaminated food in interstate commerce.
This trend continues to encourage food safety advocates, and the federal government demonstrates a commitment to public health when it enforces laws that allow criminal prosecutions for serious food safety lapses. The deterrent effect of these prosecutions can have a positive, tangible effect on reducing preventable foodborne illness outbreaks and stopping contamination at the source.