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Justice Department warns food companies: Poison customers, risk prosecution

From the Brandon Sun

Following a deadly listeria outbreak in ice cream, the Justice Department is warning food companies that they could face criminal and civil penalties if they poison their customers.

“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 Associated Press.

After years of relative inactivity, the administration has stepped up criminal enforcement on safety cases. Delery, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, wouldn’t say whether the government plans to pursue charges against Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries, which recalled all its products and shut down production earlier this year after listeria in the company’s ice cream was linked to illnesses and three deaths. A Food and Drug Administration investigation found that Blue Bell knew that it had listeria in one of its plants for almost two years before the recall.

“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 outbreaks, including 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.”

Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who has represented victims in many of those cases, says Justice’s recent activity is especially notable because in many of the cases, company executives didn’t know they were shipping out tainted food, but they were hit with criminal charges anyway.

“It’s been very much of a sea change,” Marler said. “Once you start down this road you have to decide whether you are going to do it all the time or selectively.”

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