Quality Egg LLC didn’t exactly live up to its name by mislabeling and marketing eggs that were well past their sell-by date, and two employees compounded those errors by bribing a federal agriculture inspector to look the other way.
As reported by the Associated Press (AP), the Iowa outfit was fined $6.8 million for selling the old, falsely labeled eggs as well as other products that caused a national outbreak of salmonella in 2010.
Salmonella is a bacterium that causes food poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s estimated to cause about 1.2 million cases of illnesses each year in the U.S., and about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.
Symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection that usually last four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment, but sometimes the diarrhea can be serious enough to require hospitalization.
The attorney representing dozens of the company’s salmonella victims told AP that the $6.8 million fine was the largest he’s heard of in 20 years of practicing food safety law, and that it sent a strong signal about the importance of food safety.
Federal investigators found no evidence that company executives knew they were selling tainted food, but that they were positioned to “detect, prevent and correct the sale” of the eggs had they known.
The feds also found no evidence that they knew that, for four years, their eggs were deliberately mislabeled in order to fool both regulators and consumers. In some states where their eggs are distributed, they must be sold within a month or less of their processing dates.
Apparently, a company manager was responsible for both the mislabeling and the bribery it prompted. Manager Tony Wasmund directed and approved the scheme to use false processing and expiration dates on eggs that had been in storage for several days or weeks. Some eggs were shipped without labels, inviting wholesalers to use their own inaccurate processing and expiration dates. Many of the eggs, according to AP, had been in storage for as long as 40 days.
Wasmund and another employee bribed a USDA inspector at least twice to approve huge lots of eggs that did not meet minimum quality standards because they were cracked, leaking, dirty or inedible. The inspector took $300 in April 2010 and at least one more bribe of an unspecified amount for releasing the eggs without the required reprocessing.
Wasmund is expected to be sentenced in September on charges of bribery and conspiracy.
The Obama administration has been criticized for failing to fully enact the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The FDA has emphasized education over enforcement of the new safety laws, and it promotes voluntary compliance of the FSMA.
But even with full enactment and vigilant enforcement, all it takes is one or two people to lie and cheat to put thousands more at risk.