In late January, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld the criminal convictions and sentences in a food safety case against the Peanut Corporation of America. The convictions stem from a 2009 salmonella outbreak, which killed nine people and sickened hundreds more.

To get more details about the decision and one of the largest criminal food safety cases ever, FE talked to Michael Blume, a current partner with the law firm Venable and the former Director of the Consumer Protection Branch at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) whose office prosecuted the case.

FE: Please discuss the criminal convictions that were just upheld in an appeals court recently and its significance for the food & beverage industry.

Blume: The sentences imposed on the former corporate officials of the Peanut Corporation of America were the largest ever meted out in a food safety case. Anyone in the food industry thus has to pay attention to the case, and learn from it. The bottom line is that paying insufficient attention to food safety is a risk that no one should be taking.

FE: What does this signal to the F&B processing industry regarding how serious the DOJ is about prosecuting INDIVIDUAL executives and not just companies?

Blume: For some years, DOJ has been saying that, in corporate criminal cases of any type, the government must hold individual executives accountable. Otherwise, criminal prosecution becomes little more than the cost of doing business. This case shows that DOJ is serious.

FE: Why is the DOJ taking this approach with prosecuting individuals? Who is likely to be culpable at a company in a food safety case such as this one?

Blume: Prosecuting culpable corporate executives, although always a goal of DOJ, has become more of a priority in recent years. Much of the reason for that change has been the sharp criticism DOJ faced for the lack of prosecutions of individuals in the financial services industry in the wake of the Great Recession. That said, as relevant to the food industry, DOJ has made it clear that it will focus its attention on those corporate executives who bear some responsible relation to the unlawful conduct. It will seek to hold accountable those who could have acted to prevent a food safety problem, but chose not to do so.

FE: How should F&B companies view food safety risks in their plants in light of these convictions?

Blume: Food safety is not just a regulatory concern. DOJ has signaled that, where appropriate, it will use all of the criminal tools available to it to punish those who act unlawfully. This signal is especially clear when a food safety problem leads to consumer harm.

FE: Is this just a very exceptional case or could this happen to any company?

Blume: There is no question, in my mind, that the defendants’ conduct in the PCA case was atypical. The evidence in the case showed a callousness that is, thankfully, exceedingly rare. Still, corporate executives need to recognize that DOJ is taking food safety very seriously. If it finds unlawful conduct, it will act.

FE: How should F&B companies (and their executives responsible) protect themselves?

Blume: Companies and executives would be well advised to ensure that their food safety programs are robust, effective, and up to date. What’s more, they should ensure that food safety is a part of their corporate culture, a culture that starts at the top. Such a commitment to food safety is not merely a way to minimize risk; it is good business.