U.S. Justice Department Brings New Scrutiny to Food Recalls

Add a new threat to the list of woes facing food and consumer product companies conducting recalls: criminal prosecution from the U.S. Department of Justice.

That’s right. On top of tighter federal and state inspections, greater scrutiny from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, crusading online consumer activists, alarmist news reporters and an army of eagle-eyed plaintiffs’ attorneys, companies conducting recalls are now increasingly falling under the watchful eye of the DOJ.

In recent months, food companies including Blue Bell Creameries, the Dole Food CompanyConagra Foodsand Chipotle Mexican Grill have been served with subpoenas for alleged criminal negligence related to deaths and illnesses caused by their food products.

That’s in addition to dozens of cases the Justice Department has entered in the past year to coerce food processors, restaurants and farms around the country to comply with local, state and federal food-safety statutes.

“These cases are illustrative of our wide-ranging civil and criminal enforcement practice,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer said in an address this past April to the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s important that we hold criminally accountable those individuals and entities that place consumers at risk by putting unsafe food on our table and in our lunchboxes.”

These are threatening words indeed for farmers, processors and food companies already challenged by a minefield of sanctions under hundreds of local, state and federal food safety regulations. And that’s before you even consider the tremendous reputational damage that can be done to a company’s brand overnight by a critical news story.

Over the past year, there were more than 200 food recalls in the United States caused by foodborne pathogens. You never heard of most of them because they weren’t linked to illness or deaths. The kglobal team managed communications for several of the biggest.

In each case, the companies involved cooperated fully with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state health officials to determine the cause of the contamination and to correct any problems that led to it. But even in those instances where the recalls were conducted flawlessly, sensational news stories and failure to communicate clearly with consumers and regulators during the process drew the attention of federal prosecutors.

Make no mistake, whatever the reason – whether it’s perceived insensitive treatment of consumers, leaks by disgruntled former employees or a record of lax safety procedures – federal prosecutors are now watching food companies like never before.

Perceived negligence linked to large-scale foodborne illness outbreaks will no longer fly under the radar of the DOJ.

“The cases that we bring help create incentives for good behavior and they deter misconduct,” Mizer concluded in his speech to the consumer federation. “We are committed to continuing to vigorously prosecute food safety cases.”

Food companies, consider yourselves warned.

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