When producers of such staple foods as beef, eggs, and peanut butter found they were the targets of federal criminal prosecution, it became a top food-safety story of 2014. But is it likely that food-safety enforcement will continue to rely on these U.S. Department of Justice-led (DOJ) criminal cases in 2015?
You can bet on it. Not only is it going to take 2015 and maybe beyond for the courts to fully adjudicate the cases that are underway, it’s likely we will see a new case or two involving criminal charges filed in the new year.
One additional possible criminal case we know about — and usually DOJ can prevent disclosure about a case until charges are actually filed — involves the 2006-07 Salmonella Tennessee outbreak caused by contaminated Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butters.
We know something might be stirring in that case because DOJ began contacting outbreak victims under the Crime Victims Rights Act last August, and also because Omaha, NE-based ConAgra Foods Inc. disclosed in its 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that a federal criminal misdemeanor stemming from the eight-year-old tainted peanut-butter incident remains possible.
The peanut-butter brands were produced by the $ 17.7-billion food conglomerate at a plant in Sylvester, GA. That Salmonella Tennessee outbreak, which ran from Aug. 1, 2006, to Feb. 16, 2007, sickened 425 people in 44 states. About one in five of them required hospital care, but none died.
When tainted peanut butter turned out to be the source of another Salmonella outbreak originating in Georgia, the manufacturer would not be so lucky. Nine deaths were attributed to the outbreak strain out of about 750 confirmed cases in that 2008-09 outbreak.
About 100 days have passed since a jury in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia found Peanut Corporation of America executives guilty of nearly 100 criminal charges. Post-trial action has included motions for directed verdicts of not guilty, or, as an alternative, motions for new trials.
For reasons not entirely clear or known, evidentiary hearings have been held in secret, and numerous motions made in the past 14 weeks were sealed by the judge. One possible reason for the post-trial secrecy could be defense attorney concerns that some jurors may have used the Internet to do their own research on PCA’s history during the course of the trial.
Stewart Parnell, who owned PCA; Michael Parnell, his peanut-broker broker, and Mary Wilkerson, the quality-assurance manager at Blakely, GA, were found guilty in mid-September and have been awaiting sentencing ever since, along with two other former PCA managers who pleaded guilty before the trial in a plea agreement with the prosecution.
K. Alan Dasher, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, has asked to have until Friday, Jan. 2, to respond to defense motions, some filed jointly, for a new trial. Meanwhile, defense attorney Thomas G. Ledford, who represents Wilkerson, wants to introduce yet another sealed motion.
Court documents apparently do not yet include filings of Pre-Sentence Investigative Reports (PSIRs) or dates for sentencing.
An ending may be closer for 71-year-old Austin “Jack” DeCoster, his 51-year-old son, Peter DeCoster, and their Quality Egg LLC, a family trust. The sentencing hearing for the trio will begin Feb. 9 in U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa in Sioux City.
Whether there should be any kind of jail or detention, even home detention, is the major issue separating government and defense attorneys. The father and son have each pleaded guilty to individual misdemeanors and agreed to pay fines of $ 100,000 each. Quality Egg LLC pleaded guilty to bribing a federal egg inspection and agreed to pay a $ 7.8-million fine.
The government is contacting victims of the 2010 Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak about the February sentencing event.
What could be the most-watched food-safety trial of 2015 begins with jury selection on July 16 in San Francisco. Former Rancho Feeding Corporation co-owner Jesse J. (Babe) Amaral Jr., 76, will be tried alone, as other defendants in the federal criminal conspiracy case have reached plea deals with the government on charges that they conspired to sell cattle known to have eye cancers and other problems for human consumption.
Others charged in the case will likely appear at the trial, but probably as government witnesses. They are Felix Sandoval Cabrera, 55, who was the foreman of Rancho’s slaughterhouse at Petaluma, CA; Eugene D. Corda, the 65-year-old former Rancho yardman, and 77-year-old Robert Singleton, who was Rancho’s other co-owner.
Those three have entered guilty pleas to one misdemeanor count each involving the illegal distribution of adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat.
Two other trials are scheduled in Iowa’s Halal beef cases. The Cedar Rapids-based Miramar Corporation, Islamic Services of America (ISA), and brothers Jalel Farris Aossey and Yahya Nasser Aossey are scheduled for trial on Feb. 17.
The two men are the sons of Miramar and ISA founder William B. Aossey Jr., who is scheduled for a separate trial on March 9. Both trials will take place in U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa in Cedar Rapids.
Charges of conspiracy, forgery, wire fraud, and money-laundering all stem from alleged misrepresentation of Halal beef shipments to south Asia. While the charges are not strictly food-safety related, they do involve mislabeling and violations of statutes that are usually seen as essential to food-safety enforcement.
Halal meats are prepared according to specific standards of the Muslim faith, including those for slaughter.
Food Safety News