Can Your Organization’s Food Crisis Send You to Jail?

Consumers are paying more attention to their food than ever. This focus goes beyond just the ingredients and nutritional data – consumers are looking more and more at how and where their food is made. Going beyond the food they eat, consumers are putting the companies under the microscope to see if they are acting as good corporate stewards.

That increased attention means consumers are holding brands more responsible for their actions than ever before. Food safety issues are magnified by increased media attention and the ability of social media to perpetuate the news cycle, making the job of a communications team in the food space more difficult.

All of these factors combine into an interesting trend: criminal charges in food safety issues. A recent Time article points to four convictions in foodborne illness outbreaks over the last couple years.

Take the case of Stewart Parnell, former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). PCA was identified in 2009 as the source of a massive salmonella outbreak that made hundreds sick and caused at least nine deaths. Prosecutors argued Parnell knew about the tainted product and famously told a plant manager to “Just ship it.” And, according to evidence, Parnell and his team fabricated certificates of analysis that state the food at issue was free of pathogens, when there had been no testing done or the tests had in fact revealed the presence of pathogens.

Parnell was convicted of 76 federal counts, including knowingly shipping tainted food across state lines, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and wire fraud. He will serve 28 years in prison.

There have been other recent cases of criminal charges for food safety issues. In Colorado, 33 people died from listeria after an outbreak found in cantaloupe originating from Jensen Farms. The owners, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, each received five years of probation and $150,000 in fines.

Food safety attorney Shawn Stevens says, “the FDA is just beginning to dip its toes in the water as it relates to how much and how often it will in fact use criminal sanctions…[the FDA] will pick some of the more high profile cases, bring criminal charges, and then use the media attention as a tool to show the public and corporate America that the agency is really serious about food safety.”

This trend adds another layer of anxiety for food producers, but also serves as a reminder of the communication opportunities we have. Food brands should regularly talk about the steps they take to maintain a safe product, whether that’s in social media or inviting a reporter to tour a manufacturing facility. Consumers are looking for transparency, as seen by McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions” video series, giving viewers an up-close look at their manufacturing practices. And, by saying it publicly, the company will have to uphold their commitment to food safety. As the saying goes, we will speak it into existence.