Leahy-Authored Food Safety Accountability Act Wins Committee Approval

WASHINGTON (Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010) – The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday unanimously voted to send legislation to strengthen penalties for companies and individuals that knowingly violate food safety standards and endanger American lives by placing tainted food products on the market.  The Food Safety Accountability Act is authored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Committee.

The Food Safety Accountability Act increases criminal penalties for any individual or corporation that knowing distribute adulterated or misbranded food products.  The legislation will make such an offense a felony, rather than just a misdemeanor.  The bill establishes fines and prison sentences up to 10 years for violating food safety standards.

“The Justice Department must be given the tools it needs to investigate, prosecute, and truly deter crime involving food safety,” said Leahy.  “The Food Safety Accountability Act will be an important step toward making our food supply safer.  The Senate should pass this legislation without delay.”

Leahy is urging the adoption of the Food Safety Accountability Act following a recent national recall of eggs linked to hundreds of cases of salmonella poisoning across the country.  The legislation is cosponsored by Judiciary Committee members Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The bill will now await consideration by the full Senate.

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Statement of Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
On S. 3767, the Food Safety Accountability Act,

Senate Judiciary Committee, Executive Business Meeting
September 23, 2010

Today, the Committee considers the Food Safety Accountability Act, which I introduced with Senator Senators Klobuchar and Senator Franken.  I also thank Senator Durbin and Senator Feinstein for their support of the bill, and for being leaders on food safety issues. 

This commonsense bill will hold criminals who poison our food supply accountable for their crimes.  It introduces a new criminal provision and increases the sentences that prosecutors can seek for people who knowingly violate our food safety laws.  If it is passed, those who knowingly contaminate our food supply and endanger Americans could receive up to 10 years in jail.

This summer, a salmonella outbreak causing hundreds of people to fall ill triggered a national egg recall.  The cause of the outbreak is still under investigation, but salmonella poisoning is all too common and sometimes results from inexcusable knowing conduct. 

Just last year, a mother from Vermont, Gabrielle Meunier, testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee about her seven-year-old son, Christopher, who became severely ill and was hospitalized for six days after he developed salmonella poisoning from peanut crackers.  Thankfully, Christopher recovered, and but Mrs. Meunier’s story highlighted improvements that are needed in our food safety system.  No parent should have to go through what Mrs. Meunier experienced.  The American people should be confident that the food they buy for their families is safe.

Current statutes do not provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who knowingly violate our food safety laws.  Knowingly distributing adulterated food is already illegal, but it is merely a misdemeanor right now, and the Sentencing Commission has found that it generally does not result in jail time.  The fines and recalls that usually result from criminal violations under current law fall short in protecting the public from harmful products.  Too often, those who are willing to endanger our children in pursuit of profits view such fines or recalls as merely the cost of doing business.  

Indeed, the company responsible for the eggs at the root of the current salmonella crisis has a long history of environmental, immigration, labor, and food safety violations.   It is clear that fines are not enough to protect the public and effectively deter this unacceptable conduct.   We need to make sure that those who knowingly poison the food supply will go to jail.  This bill will help to do that. 

After hearing Mrs. Meunier’s account last year, I called on the Department of Justice to conduct a criminal investigation into the outbreak of salmonella that made Christopher and many others so sick.  In that case, the outbreak was traced to the Peanut Corporation of America.  The president of that company, Stewart Parnell, came before Congress and invoked his right against self-incrimination, refusing to answer questions about his role in distributing contaminated peanut products.  These products were linked to the deaths of nine people and have sickened more than 600 others. 

It appears that Mr. Parnell knew that peanut products from his company had tested positive for deadly salmonella, but rather than immediately disposing of the products, he sought ways to sell them anyway.  The evidence suggests that he knowingly put profit above the public’s safety.  Our laws must be strengthened to ensure this does not happen again.  This bill significantly increases the chances that those who commit food safety crimes will face jail time, rather than a slap on the wrist, for their criminal conduct. 

I hope all Senators will support this bill.  On behalf of the hundreds of individuals sickened by this summer’s and last year’s salmonella outbreaks, we must repair our broken food safety system.  The Justice Department must be given the tools it needs to investigate, prosecute, and truly deter crime involving food safety.  Passing this bill will be an important step toward making our food supply safer.

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