A Couple of Firsts in Food Enforcement

September 22, 2020By Ricardo Carvajal & Anne K. Walsh

Last week brought a reminder that the government can bring to bear a range of legal theories – some old, some new – in pursuing alleged violations of food safety requirements.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a sentence levying $17.25 million in criminal penalties against Blue Bell Creameries, whose ice cream products were implicated in an outbreak of foodborne illness. The sentencing follows a plea agreement entered last May, in which Blue Bell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated products and agreed to pay the criminal penalties, and also agreed to pay $2.1 million to resolve alleged violations of the False Claims Act. According to DOJ, “the $17.25 million fine and forfeiture amount is the largest-ever criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case.”

We won’t recount the long history of the Blue Bell saga here, but the company allegedly declined to initiate a recall or issue a formal notification to consumers after being informed that product samples had tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. Subsequently, the strain detected in the products was linked to a strain that sickened consumers, and FDA inspectors found sanitation issues at the company’s manufacturing facilities.  Although the government charged the company’s former president, Paul Kruse, with seven felony counts, the court dismissed those charges in July 2020 because the government failed to use proper charging procedures.  With this corporate settlement, it is unknown whether the government will pursue any further charges against individuals.

Separately, DOJ announced the issuance of an injunction against Fortune Food Product, a producer of sprouts and tofu products whose manufacturing operation was alleged by FDA to be in violation of certain requirements of the produce safety regulation and the current good manufacturing practice regulation for food.  FDA’s press release notes that this is “the first consent decree of permanent injunction against a firm or grower for violating public safety standards under the Produce Safety Rule enacted under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.”  The company will be unable to resume production until it has complied with the terms of the injunction, effectively closing the company’s doors until it demonstrates to FDA’s satisfaction that it can produce compliant products.