Foodborne illnesses are on the rise—and they may soon come with stiff penalties for offending manufacturers, including criminal and civil penalties, says the Justice Department.
The news comes after “years of relative inactivity,” reports The Associated Press, and several high-profile outbreaks, including the recent listeria outbreak out of Blue Bell Creameries in Texas, which was linked to at least three deaths and dozens more illnesses.
"We have made a priority holding individuals and companies responsible when they fail to live up to their obligations that they have to protect the safety of the food that all of us eat," Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery said in an interview with The AP.
Between 2008 and 2009, nine people were killed and more than 700 sickened after consuming salmonella-tainted peanuts distributed by the Peanut Corporation of America. In what turned out to be one of the most high-profile cases related to foodborne illnesses, an executive of the PCA was found guilty of “conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes,” related to the outbreak, reports The AP.
While Delery, who is the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, “wouldn't say whether the government plans to pursue charges against Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries” for its recent massive outbreak, an FDA investigation reportedly found that some Blue Bell employees knew of the listeria contamination in one of its plants for nearly two years before the recall was issued.
"I will say we are following the reports and working with our agency partners, obviously, as they conduct their reviews and investigations," Delery said of the Blue Bell investigation and other recent foodborne illness outbreaks, including recent deaths linked to listeria in caramel apples. "What I can say is we're committed to staying on top of outbreaks and evaluating potential cases as the evidence warrants."
While the food industry group the Grocery Manufacturers Association says safety is at the core of its members products, outbreaks continue to be widespread.
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