Analysis

Guilty Verdicts Issued in Peanut Contamination Trial

Jurors in federal court have returned guilty verdicts against three executives of the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America, whose tainted products caused a multistate outbreak of Salmonella infections in 2008 and 2009. The company’s owner and two others were convicted in Albany, Georgia, on charges that they knowingly shipped contaminated food across state lines and defrauded customers with false laboratory results attesting to their products' safety.

The outbreak sickened a reported total of more than 700 people in 46 states, including nine who died from their Salmonella infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The guilty verdicts are an important step in bringing justice to families affected by foodborne illness,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s safe food project. “However, what we really need is a fully funded law to help prevent these tragedies in the future.”

Shirley Almer, a two-time cancer survivor, became ill and died after eating peanut butter toast in the nursing home where she lived in Brainerd, Minnesota. Her son, Jeff Almer, has since testified before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Congress about the need for a more comprehensive food safety system. He and many other families and individuals affected by foodborne illnesses have become staunch advocates of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which they hope can prevent future outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

“We took it upon ourselves to make laws stronger,” Almer told CNN.

FSMA, signed into law in 2011, shifts the FDA’s focus from responding to food safety issues to preventing them. Full funding for the law is needed to ensure its effective enforcement, but Congress has yet to allocate enough money to pay for crucial steps, such as specialized training for inspectors and improved collaboration with food safety authorities across the United States and the globe.

Pew’s safe food project has worked since 2009 to reduce health risks from foodborne pathogens by strengthening federal government authority and the enforcement of food safety laws.

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