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[SANET-MG] food contamination liability
Strange that the strict food contamination laws have not applied to
food contamination from un-approved GM crops?
Posted on Thu, Oct. 05, 2006
FBI seeks signs of crime in raid on spinach firms
By Ken McLaughlin and Brandon Bailey
In a startling twist to the E. coli outbreak that has flummoxed federal
and state investigators, agents for the FBI and FDA on Wednesday
executed two search warrants on two Salinas area companies, saying they
were looking for evidence of a crime.
The two companies were Growers Express of Salinas and Natural Selection
Foods of San Juan Bautista -- the company whose bagged spinach is at the
center of the outbreak. It was unclear how Growers Express -- which
grows and packs produce in the Western United States and Latin America
-- fits into the probe.
An FBI spokesman said agents from the bureau had been involved in the
case ``for quite some time.''
``There's no indication this was tampering. There's no indication this
was terrorism or anything like that,'' said Special Agent Joseph
Schadler. But in a clue as to why the two businesses were raided,
Schadler said there could be criminal violations if growers or
distributors did not take steps required to ensure the spinach was safe.
Schadler said investigators may look into possible violations of
environmental laws as well as parts of the federal Food, Drug and
News of the FBI's involvement raised echoes of the 1996 E. coli outbreak
linked to juice produced by Odwalla, a Northern California company that
was convicted on criminal charges for not preventing contamination of
its products. The company paid $1.5 million after pleading guilty to 16
misdemeanors stemming from an outbreak that killed a toddler and caused
dozens of others to become sick in several Western states and Canada.
Joseph John, the federal prosecutor in that case, said courts have ruled
that food suppliers have ``strict liability'' in contamination cases,
meaning they can be found guilty of a misdemeanor simply for
distributing contaminated food across state lines, knowingly or not. The
intent of the law is to make suppliers take responsibility for ensuring
the safety of their food.
Depending on the statutes involved, Schadler said, authorities may not
have to show intentional violation of the law to prove a crime. Still,
he emphasized that the U.S. Attorney's Office could end up filing no
charges in the case.
The latest E. coli outbreak has so far killed one person and sickened at
least 192 others in 26 states and Canada.
FBI and Food and Drug Administration officials were mum on what they
might have found Wednesday. But Charles Sweat, Natural Selection's chief
operating officer, said agents had requested paperwork, including
documents already provided to the FDA and the California Department of
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney whose firm is representing 93 victims in
the E. coli outbreak, said the federal agents could have been looking
for ``missing quality assurance documents.''
``It would be a problem for the company if they are lost or, worse,
destroyed,'' he said.
In the statement, however, Sweat vigorously defended the firm's
integrity and food-safety practices.
``All tests performed on our processing facilities, both those done by
independent scientists and government investigators, have been . .
clean,'' he said. ``We continue to believe that the source of the
contamination was in the fields from which we buy our spinach.''
Sweat made a similar statement at a news conference last week at which
he announced that all spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens entering
the company's processing plant are now undergoing random sampling for E.
coli, salmonella and other pathogens.
Several farmers said they were shocked to hear of the FBI's involvement.
``This is just very disturbing. Just the indication that they've taken
this step is bad,'' said Andrew Cumming, president of MetzFresh, a
spinach grower in King City and Salinas.
Many spinach growers have suffered severe financial losses since the
contamination outbreak surfaced last month.
``We've had a really bad two or three weeks now, and this just piles
on,'' he said, adding: ``If something was done illegally, that's not the
standard of our industry.''
Officials at Growers Express did not issue any comment on the raids. The
company grows and packs iceberg lettuce sold under the Green Giant Fresh
label and Farm Day packaged spinach. It has 40,000 acres of fields in
California, Arizona, Mexico and Peru.
While many food-safety cases are handled administratively, criminal
prosecutions have increased since the Odwalla case. The exact cause of
the spinach outbreak has yet to be found, but in the Odwalla case,
authorities never determined the source of the contamination either.
They suspected it originated in the feces of workers or cattle that had
migrated into the orchards. While the government did not contend that
Odwalla acted maliciously, it said the company failed to take adequate
precautions. Odwalla has since started a flash-pasteurization process.
The same strain of E. coli also was implicated in a food contamination
case involving hamburgers sold by Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993.
No one was prosecuted in that case, linked to the death of four children
in the Pacific Northwest.
Under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it can be a misdemeanor
to distribute any contaminated food through interstate commerce. It can
be a felony if authorities can show evidence of intent or a previous
violation of the act. Penalties for a felony can include a $10,000 fine,
three years in prison or both.
Authorities also have prosecuted farmers under federal clean-water laws
and other environmental statutes.
In the same year as the Odwalla convictions, a Central Valley dairyman
was convicted on misdemeanor charges after authorities accused him of
dumping thousands of gallons of wastewater contaminated with animal
feces and urine into nearby creeks.
Christine Bruhn, a food scientist and director of the Center for
Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis, said that kind
of prosecution is ``a really good deterrent'' for other food producers
who might be tempted to cut corners.
Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlin@mercury news.com or (831) 423-3115.
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