The bottom line is that “industry has to be ready in 2016,” Dr. Henry tells Food Quality & Safety. “Things will become clearer once we see how the agency undertakes inspections after Sept. 30, 2016.”
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Building on successful criminal prosecutions of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and ConAgra Foods Inc., the Department of Justice in 2016 will likely pursue additional high-profile cases against company officials when food safety problems arise. In September 2015, former PCA CEO Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened more than 700 others nationwide. It was the stiffest punishment ever handed down in a foodborne illness case. His brother, Michael Parnell, was sentenced to 20 years, and the plant’s former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, was sentenced to five years.
These sentences “demonstrate the consequences for those whose criminal actions threaten that trust by introducing contaminated food into the marketplace,” said Stuart F. Delery, acting associate U.S. attorney general, at the time of sentencing. “Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity,” added Stephen Ostroff, MD, acting FDA commissioner. “Those who choose profits over the health and safety of U.S. consumers are now on notice that the FDA, working with the Department of Justice, will strive to use the full force of our justice system against them.”
Speaking at the American Food Manufacturing Safety Summit in Dallas in June 2015, Delery explained that the Justice Department will generally pursue felony charges against food company executives when it believes they acted intentionally. “A common thread in many of the cases we have pursued is that multiple people within an organization saw red flags of unsafe practices and chose not to act,” he explained. “Even a single decision to cut corners can have deadly consequences.” But when intent is not a factor, such as with Jensen Farms cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, the government will generally pursue misdemeanor charges, he explained. (Eric and Ryan Jensen each received five years probation and were ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution.
In May 2015, ConAgra Grocery Products LLC agreed to pay $11.2 million in a misdemeanor plea agreement to resolve allegations that it shipped Salmonella-tainted peanut butter under its Peter Pan brand and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.’s Great Value label. More than 700 people were sickened in 44 states, with about 20 percent of them requiring hospitalization; none died.
Traditional disease surveillance systems capture only about 20 percent of the estimated 48 million annual U.S. foodborne illness cases because only a small proportion of sickened people will seek medical care or report their conditions to authorities. Researchers have found that social media, such as Twitter and online review sites such as Yelp, can help local public health departments identify and track foodborne illness outbreaks more effectively.
Biostatistician Elaine Nsoesie, a research fellow in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, and colleagues compared reports of foodborne illness posted on social media to those confirmed by the CDC. They found “significant correlations” for illnesses associated with poultry, leafy lettuce, and mollusks. “Online reviews of food service businesses offer a unique resource for disease surveillance,” Nsoesie said in a presentation at an American Statistical Association’s conference in August 2015.
Social media may even become a tool to help consumers learn more about their food. “We live in a highly connected world today where the consumer is more aware and empowered to learn about the origins of their food, recall alerts, and ingredients that they believe may cause them harm,” says Angela Fernandez, vice president of retail grocery and food service at GS1 US. “In 2016, I believe we’ll see fewer barriers between supply chain partners as they work to enhance traceability processes that make the recall process and entire supply chain more interoperable and collaborative,” Fernandez tells Food Quality & Safety. “This proactive approach puts consumer concerns at the forefront.”
Proposed Rule for Gluten-Free Labeling
The U.S. FDA released a proposed rule in November to establish requirements for fermented and hydrolyzed foods, or foods that contain fermented or hydrolyzed ingredients, and bear the “gluten-free” claim. The proposed rule, titled “Gluten-Free Labeling of Fermented or Hydrolyzed Foods,” pertains to foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, cheese, green olives, vinegar, and FDA-regulated beers.