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Food borne illnesses: Peanut Corp. of America case sets new rules


On September 21, 2015, Stewart Parnell, the CEO of the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America ("PCA"), was sentenced in a federal courtroom in Albany, Georgia. He and two other executives were given sentences that ended a case that was historic in every aspect: (1) the 2008 salmonella outbreak caused by tainted peanut butter shipped from PCA's facility in Blakely, Georgia poisoned a record-breaking 714 people across 46 states, ultimately resulting in 9 deaths; (2) the ground-breaking decision by federal prosecutors to charge food company executives with felony charges in connection with an outbreak; and (3) the conviction of the executives, and the unprecedented sentencing of a CEO and his brother to 28 and 20 years in prison, respectively.

Undoubtedly, the PCA case will make food industry executives and plant managers (the quality assurance manager at the facility from which the tainted peanut butter originated received a five year prison term) sit up and pay attention to safety and health standards. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in 2011, the Food and Drug Administration can act proactively to attempt to avoid outbreaks of food borne illnesses by suspending a facility's ability to sell food in America's markets if it suspects that the food may be contaminated. With the success of the PCA trial, prosecutors may pursue criminal charges against other food company executives in the future when evidence shows, as it did in the PCA case, that they knew their product was tainted but they chose to "just ship it."


Unfortunately, tainted or contaminated food is extremely common today. The Centers for Disease Control ("CDC") estimates that 48 million Americans--one out of every six--are sickened as a result of consuming contaminated food and beverages. Some people become ill; an estimated 100,000 people need to be hospitalized annually; and over 3,000 people die each year from ingesting tainted food or drink. The very young and old, and those with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable.

Food borne illnesses can be bacterial or viral. Illness caused by food carrying bacteria such as listeria, Ecoli, and salmonella typically cause flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, fever, muscle and joint pain. Illness caused by food tainted with a virus such as norovirus would have similar symptoms only more severe, but food tainted with a virus such as Hepatitis A would have a very different set of symptoms: fatigue, loss of appetite and fever, followed by jaundice. Often times the illnesses resolve without treatment within a few days or a week. However, some cases can be severe and result in months-long infections and even permanent complications.


This year has seen outbreaks of both listeria and salmonella. In April, Blue Bell Creameries pulled all of its products from its store shelves in a massive, 23-state recall. (See April blog on the Blue Bell Recall). The CDC had finally linked three deaths and ten illnesses from listeria over a five year period from 2010-2015 to Blue Bell products. The reason for the lengthy investigation is that ice cream products are not normal carriers of listeria.

Also in April of 2015, Sabra Dipping Company issued a recall of its Classic Hummus; no illness associated with the product or company was reported, however.

Currently, there is a salmonella outbreak from cucumbers manufactured and distributed by Andrews & Williamson Fresh Produce, Inc. To date, 418 people across 31 states have fallen ill, and 3 people have died; one death in Arizona, California, and Texas each. Eight lawsuits have been filed on behalf of eight separate plaintiffs seeking damages.


Although there is no way to completely prevent exposure to food borne illnesses, there are some safety tips that if practiced regularly will reduce exposure:

(1) wash hands with warm, soapy water before all food preparation

(2) wash all cooking surfaces, utensils, cutting boards and cooking boards

(3) wash all fresh produce with warm water, removing outer lettuce/cabbage leaves

(4) cook meat, poultry and eggs to proper temperatures

(5) buy pasteurized products


If you or a loved one became ill and suspect that it was due to contaminated food or drink, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation about your legal rights. If you have questions regarding a current outbreak and recall, call the law office of Dave Thomas for helpful information.

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