Between late 2008 and early 2009, more than 700 people became ill and at least nine died from consuming a lunchbox staple—peanut butter. This tragedy, at first, provoked bewilderment. It did not seem possible that an ingredient that showed up on countless food labels—granola bars, cookies, cereal, TV dinners, and even pet food—could slip past seemingly countless federal and state regulations meant to keep our food supply safe. Most distressing of all was that the victims were predominantly children and the elderly. It seemed that every parent in America was checking his or her pantry in an attempt to keep kids safe from a food whose only past brush with controversy was the debate over creamy versus crunchy.
Sadly, foodborne illness in the United States is rather common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick from and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year. Not all of these incidents are the result of foodborne outbreaks (when two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink). And when there are foodborne outbreaks, it is almost always the result of negligence.
But in the case of the peanut butter outbreak, something more sinister was at its source. The Food and Drug Administration traced the outbreak back to the Peanut Corp. of America's ("PCA") manufacturing facility in Blakely, Georgia. There, investigators found practically a salmonella incubator—the roof was leaking, raw peanuts were stored next to finished peanut butter, and the roaster was not calibrated to kill dangerous bacteria. When interviewing plant workers, investigators also discovered that the plant had knowingly shipped peanut butter tainted with salmonella for the previous two years.
Last week, Samuel Lightsey, the former manager of the Blakely plant, pled guilty to seven counts, including wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy, for his role in the salmonella outbreak. These counts stemmed from his participation in a conspiracy to fabricate certificates of analysis ("COAs"), which are documents that summarize laboratory results. On several occasions, Lightsey worked with other PCA employees to alter COAs to state that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens, when either they had not been tested or they had tested positive for salmonella. He also communicated over email to further this fraudulent activity. Because Lightsey pled guilty, prosecutors plan to recommend that he serve no more than six years in prison rather than the maximum of fifty-three years. He was one of five executives charged on over seventy felony counts.
Ordinarily, when individuals are accused of crimes relating to shipping adulterated foods, they face criminal misdemeanor charges. If convicted, the offender typically pays large fines that have both a punitive and deterrent effect. This is because, in most cases, the actions giving rise to the outbreak were merely negligent—perhaps machinery hadn't been cleaned properly or unexpected rainfall resulted in contaminated run-off from a neighboring field.
Because the deaths and illness caused by this outbreak were caused by a knowing disregard of public safety, federal prosecutors saw no reason to go easy on the executives of PCA. For the three executives awaiting trial, they'd better hope their attorneys can convince the jury otherwise.