01.27.11

Leahy Continues Fight For Food Safety Enforcement

Bill Would Increase Criminal Penalties Against Food Safety Violators

WASHINGTON (Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) today reintroduced legislation to strengthen criminal penalties against those who knowingly violate food safety standards. Leahy first proposed the Food Safety Accountability Act last summer to hold the most egregious food safety violators accountable for knowingly selling tainted products.

The legislation will impose stricter prison sentences and fines for individuals or corporations that contaminate the nation’s food supply by knowingly distributing contaminated food products with a disregard for consumer safety. Recent recalls of tainted food products, including nationwide recalls of certain eggs and peanut products, led Leahy to first introduce legislation last July to increase penalties for food safety violations.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, unanimously approved the legislation in September 2010.  Leahy had sought to include the criminal penalties bill in the broader FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law early this year.

“This legislation will hold criminals who poison our food supply accountable for their crimes,” said Leahy.  “This is an issue that received considerable attention last year when Congress considered comprehensive food safety reforms.  While that legislation was enacted, our work is not done.  The Food Safety Accountability Act increases the sentences that prosecutors can seek for people who intentionally violate our food safety laws in those cases where there is conscious or reckless disregard for the risks to consumers.”

The Food Safety Accountability Act will allow law enforcement to seek sentences of up to 10 years in jail for those who contaminate our food supply with the intent to mislead or defraud consumers, and endanger Americans.  Leahy is expected to schedule Judiciary Committee consideration of the legislation soon.  The bill is cosponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).  The text of the bill is available online.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee

On Introduction Of The Food Safety Accountability Act

January 27, 2011

 

Today, I am pleased to introduce legislation to hold criminals who poison our food supply accountable for their crimes.  This is an issue that received considerable attention last year, and I was pleased that the Congress finally passed comprehensive food safety reforms.  But our work is not done.  The Food Safety Accountability Act increases the sentences that prosecutors can seek for people who violate our food safety laws in those cases where there is conscious or reckless disregard of a risk of death or serious bodily injury.  The legislation I propose will allow law enforcement to seek sentences of up to 10 years in jail for those who contaminate our food supply with the intent to mislead or defraud consumers, and endanger Americans.

Last year, I introduced similar legislation which received unanimous support from the Senate Judiciary Committee.  I hope the Judiciary Committee, and the full Senate, will give it the same consideration this year.   I’d like to thank Senator Klobuchar and Senator Franken for their ongoing support of the bill. Senator Sessions, Senator Hatch, Senator Coburn, and Senator Grassley had concerns about its breadth, and we were able to work together to address these concerns in the legislation I introduce today.    

Just last summer, a salmonella outbreak caused hundreds of people to fall ill and triggered a national egg recall.  The company responsible for the eggs at the root of this summer’s salmonella crisis had 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 intentionally poison the food supply will go to jail.  The Food Safety Accountability Act will help to do that in the most egregious cases. 

Current statutes do not provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who violate our food safety laws with the intent to mislead or defraud.  Doing so 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.  

In the last Congress, 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, but Mrs. Meunier’s story highlighted improvements that are needed in our food safety system.  No parent should have to go through what she experienced.  The American people should be confident that the food they buy for their families is safe.

After hearing Mrs. Meunier’s account, 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.  These products were linked to the deaths of nine people and have sickened more than 600 others.  It appears that the company responsible knew that their peanut products had tested positive for deadly salmonella, but rather than immediately disposing of the products, the company sought ways to sell them anyway.  The evidence suggests that the public was misled, and that the company put profit above the public’s safety.   The Food Safety Accountability Act increases the chances that those who disregard the safety of Americans and commit food safety crimes will face jail time, rather than merely a slap on the wrist, for their criminal conduct. 

On behalf of the hundreds of individuals sickened by recent salmonella outbreaks, I hope Senators of both parties will act swiftly to pass this bill.  We have come a long way, but must continue to be diligent to ensure that our food safety system is strong.  The Justice Department must be given the tools it needs to investigate and prosecute crime involving food safety, and we must work together, from farm to fork, to improve the safety of food in this country.

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