This week brought significant and perhaps troubling news to food and consumer product goods producers and their respective suppliers distributing products throughout the U.S.. Business headlines noted that a ConAgra Foods business unit agreed to plead guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge and pay an $11.2 million fine in conjunction with 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak involving the firm’s Peter Pan and Great Value branded peanut butter products.

At the time, the salmonella outbreak occurred across 47 states and sickened a reported 700 people. The outbreak was eventually traced to a manufacturing facility in the state of Georgia. As part of this week’s plea agreement, ConAgra admitted it had been aware of some risk of contamination prior to its voluntary recall. After this outbreak, ConAgra subsequently made was is reported to be significant upgrades to its manufacturing facility along with instituting advanced safety protocols.

This news is significant for this industry in a couple of rather important dimensions.  This week’s fine, although meager by today’s liability standards, is noted as the largest fine levied to-date in a food safety case. Once more, over these past months, federal authorities are now demonstrating intent to hold both companies and their individual executives accountable for food safety. According to The Wall Street Journal, since 2013 the Justice Department has won convictions or guilty pleas involving four criminal cases against food companies or the executives that run them.  The WSJ notes that in most of the recent cases, successful prosecution occurred even without proof that officials acted with criminal intent, which was a difficult hurdle for investigators to previously overcome. The significant nuance of holding executives accountable without proofing criminal intent has reportedly jolted the food industry, given its broad implications. That implies that executives are now legally accountable for food safety, and that might be interpreted to include senior supply chain executives. Certainly, we are not lawyers, and industry supply chain leaders are advised to seek out specific opinion from in-house legal counsel.

Food companies are now stepping-up efforts to improve food safety including investments in new technologies to monitor any signs of contamination or erosion in quality and to speed-up data analysis. That, in reality, may be good. However, it opens the doors to added sensitivities as to when manufacturers should recall food products, and the types or levels of internal documentation required as proof of proactive response to suspected contamination and/or disease.  The industry may well experience an increased rate of recall actions out of abundance of caution, as these new nuances are more fully understood.

The takeaway for consumers is hopefully safer food products in the coming months.  For supply chain management teams, the implication is added cautions and increased scrutiny of individual production, storage and distribution practices related to food production. Any notion that assuring proactive food safety practices is not my job is now null and void.  Food safety is every executive’s and every employee’s concern.

Bob Ferrari