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Keeping Our Food Safe
March 5th, 2013 Posted by

The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch in honor of National Consumer Protection Week.

We are all aware of the importance of making healthy choices when it comes to foods, but some foods may be bad for your health in unexpected ways. 

In the last year, Americans have suffered through a significant number of illness outbreaks linked to such common foods as peanut butter, cantaloupe, ricotta cheese, and spinach.  The vast majority of food on our grocery shelves is safe – a historically significant accomplishment for which many people in the private and public sectors should be proud.  Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million people in America – one in six of us – get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.  The dangers of foodborne illness must spur us all towards increased vigilance and, when appropriate, increased enforcement of our food safety laws.

With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice is dedicated to ensuring the safety of foods eaten by Americans every day.   We are also joined in this effort by the vast majority of food producers and preparers – people from around the country who take seriously the crucial importance of preparing good, safe food. 

It is illegal for any person to introduce into interstate commerce an “adulterated” food.  Food is adulterated if it contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render the food injurious to health.  For example, if the food contains E. coli, it is adulterated, and the shipment of that food may constitute a crime.  Food is also adulterated if:

  • it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions, and
  • may have become contaminated with filth, or
  • injurious to health. 

Over the last few years, the Federal government has taken a number of steps to better protect the public from dangerous foodborne illnesses.  In January 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act.   The new law squarely puts the focus on preventing food safety problems in the first place and gives the FDA the power to suspend a facility’s ability to sell food in the United States and to detain food that may be adulterated.

The Department of Justice also pays close attention to food safety matters.  We will not hesitate to use the many tools at our disposal to protect Americans from unsafe foods.  The Department can initiate civil actions to prevent individuals from distributing adulterated foods.  In more serious violations of the law, the Department and its law enforcement partners can investigate potential criminal violations of the law and seek to charge individuals with criminal violations.

Over the last year, the Department of Justice has brought civil cases to prevent companies and individuals from introducing adulterated foods into our markets.  These cases have involved a wide variety of foods, such as tofu and soy products, roasted nuts, whey protein powder, and various fresh and smoked fish.  Of course, in general, these foods are perfectly safe.  But where the Government believes food has or may become adulterated due to processing conditions or other factors, the Government has sought, and Courts have granted, orders requiring defendants to clean up their facilities before they start distributing certain food again.

We can also seek criminal charges in appropriate circumstances, as it did, for example, when it charged a number of former executives and employees of the Peanut Corporation of America and a related company with a variety of crimes (including violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) related to multiple schemes to defraud the company’s customers and mislead those customers as to the presence of salmonella in the company’s peanut products. 

These cases demonstrate we will pursue cases where there the public is endangered, and further serve to encourage the food production industry to take utmost care in ensuring the safety of their products.  The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat common, everyday foods.

The government needs partners in this effort.  There are over 171,000 registered food facilities in the United States alone, and a limited supply of inspectors.  Each food producer or processor has a responsibility to maintain its facility in a manner so American consumers know the food they buy is safe.  The majority of food producers take their responsibilities seriously and take the necessary precautions to produce safe food.  But each producer must also know that, if they fail in that responsibility, they will be held to account.

We also need you.  Prepare and handle foods safely.  Pay attention to any recall notices.  That way, we can all experience the joys of good food.

For more information, visit FoodSafety.gov.

 

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