Stuart Delery, shown here in a file photo from the Justice Department, recently reaffirmed the department's commitment to food safety.
Stuart Delery, shown here in a file photo from the Justice Department, recently reaffirmed the department's commitment to food safety.

A top Justice Department official says the government will continue to file criminal charges against owners and executives of companies whose food is linked to illness outbreaks, regardless of intent.

Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery, who is third in the chain of command at the Justice Department, said the government and industry share a common interest in promoting consumer confidence about food safety when he addressed food producers at a recent event in Dallas.

Delery mentioned the 2011 listeria monocytogenes outbreak that was linked to fresh, whole cantaloupe and killed at least 33 people during remarks at the American Food Manufacturing Safety Summit in late June.

“When the goal is ensuring that Americans can trust the food they eat, government and industry are on the same side. We are both working to assure people across the country that, ... regardless of the highly publicized contamination of eggs and dairy products and cantaloupe, their food is safer than it ever has been.”

Problems arise, Delery told summit attendees, when red flags are ignored by management and when profit is deemed more important than proper procedures.

“Even a single decision to cut corners can have deadly consequences,” Delery said. “The criminal prosecutions we bring should stand as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of disregarding danger to one’s customers in the name of getting a shipment out on time – of sacrificing what is right for what is expedient.

“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.”

Delery said the Justice Department will generally reserve felony criminal charges or those proven to have intentionally marketed unsafe food. For cases where intent is not a factor, such as with the cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado, misdemeanor charges will be the rule of thumb, he said.