07.29.10

Leahy Introduces Bill To Increase Penalties For Food Safety Violations

WASHINGTON (Thursday, July 29, 2010) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation Thursday to strengthen penalties imposed on companies that knowingly violate food safety standards and endanger Americans’ lives.

The Food Safety Enforcement Act will increase the sentences that prosecutors can seek for people who knowingly contaminate the nation’s food supply and endanger Americans’ lives.  The 2009 outbreak resulting from the Peanut Corporation of America’s sale of peanut products which the company knew to have contained salmonella resulted in one of the largest food recalls in history.   That outbreak left nine people dead and sickened hundreds more.  Evidence has suggested that the company knew that peanut products tested positive for salmonella, but sought to sell the products anyways, knowingly putting the health of countless Americans at risk.

“Current statutes do not provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who knowingly violate our food safety laws,” said Leahy.  “The bill I introduce today would increase sentences for people who put profits above safety by knowingly contaminating the food supply.  It makes such offenses felony violations and significantly increases the chances that those who commit them will face jail time, rather than a slap on the wrist, for their criminal conduct.” 

Last year, Leahy, a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, invited Gabrielle Meunier of South Burlington, Vermont, to testify at an Agriculture Committee hearing on federal food safety oversight.  Meunier’s seven-year-old son, Christopher, fell seriously ill in the Fall of 2008 and was hospitalized for six days in a case connected to the peanut-salmonella outbreak associated with products from the Peanut Corporation of America. 

The Food Safety Enforcement Act will allow prosecutors to seek prison sentences of up to 10 years for people who knowingly place contaminated food products into the nation’s food supply, and make such offenses felony violations.  The proposed legislation is expected to be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, for consideration.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Introduction of the Food Safety Enforcement Act
July 29, 2010

 

Today, I am pleased to introduce the Food Safety Enforcement Act, legislation that will hold criminals who poison our food supply accountable for their crimes.  This common sense bill 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.

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 Mrs. Meunier was able to share her story, which highlighted for the Committee and for the Senate 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.  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 just the cost of doing business.  In order 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. 

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.  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 have been linked to the deaths of nine people and have sickened more than 600 others.  It appears that 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. 

The bill I introduce today would increase sentences for people who put profits above safety by knowingly contaminating the food supply.  It makes such offenses felony violations and significantly increases the chances that those who commit them will face jail time, rather than a slap on the wrist, for their criminal conduct. 

I hope Senators of both parties will act quickly to pass this bill.  On behalf of Mrs. Meunier and her son, Christopher, as well as many like them across the country, 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.  This bill will be an important step toward making our food supply safer.

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