Sara Lee Pleads Guilty to Selling Adulterated Meat from Michigan Plant - FSNET - Knight-Ridder Tribune/N.Y. Times/Reuters/G - June 24, 2001

FSNET - Knight-Ridder Tribune/N.Y. Times/Reuters/G
June 24, 2001

For a food-borne illness outbreak that killed 21 people across the country, Sara Lee Corp., according to these stories, pleaded guilty Friday to a misdemeanor federal charge of selling adulterated meat from its Bil Mar Foods plant in west Michigan.

As part of the plea agreement, Sara Lee also agreed to pay a $200,000 fine-- the maximum under the law for a corporate defendant. The company also promised to make a $3-million grant to Michigan State University for food safety research and pay $1.2 million to settle a civil lawsuit for selling Bil Mar food to the U.S. Department of Defense.

The stories explain that the guilty plea was the culmination of a nearly three-year federal investigation of Bil Mar's December 1998 recall of 35 million pounds of hot dogs and lunch meats because of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Meats from the plant in Borculo were eventually linked by genetic fingerprinting to a nationwide outbreak of listeriosis that killed 15 people, caused six miscarriages and seriously sickened 80 people.

Sara Lee President and CEO Steve McMillan was quoted as saying in a statement, 'We are pleased that this situation is now behind us. The programs Sara Lee already has undertaken and agreed to undertake in the future will be of tremendous benefit to the entire food industry and the consumers it serves.'

U.S. Attorney Phillip Green was cited as calling Friday's plea agreement an appropriate resolution of the case, especially given the company's voluntary recall and that there was no evidence the company knowingly shipped contaminated food. The government must prove a company intentionally shipped tainted food to get a felony conviction, he said. Green was quoted as saying, 'My heart goes out to the families of the victims of the listeriosis outbreak. But it seems to me the resolution we had today will go a long way to make sure it doesn't happen again.'

Food safety advocates and an attorney who represents many of the outbreak's victims were cited as saying Sara Lee got off easy.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was quoted as saying, 'It certainly shows how out of date our food safety laws are that a major outbreak that killed 21 people can be considered a misdemeanor,' and that the $200,000 fine Sara Lee will pay is tiny, considering that the company last year had total sales of $17.5 billion.

Ken Moll, a Chicago attorney handling a class-action lawsuit over the outbreak, was cited as saying the $3 million Sara Lee will give to MSU also is inconsequential, adding, 'It did not affect Sara Lee one iota. They contribute a lot more every year to food safety research. If they give it all to one place, so what?' A Sara Lee spokeswoman was cited as saying she could not determine how much money the company spends annually on food safety research.

The story says that a Free Press investigation published in 1999 revealed that before the outbreak, federal meat inspectors repeatedly cited the plant for unclean practices and faulty procedures. At the same time, plant workers were regularly testing work surfaces for the presence of cold-loving bacteria -- a class of bacteria that includes potentially deadly Listeria monocytogenes as well as some harmless bacteria. The test is a general indicator of sanitation problems.

Beginning in July 1998, after some construction inside the plant, workers recorded a sharp increase in the presence of cold-loving bacteria. The number of positive samples remained high until the company stopped performing the tests in November 1998 -- a month before the recall. DeWaal was further quoted as saying, 'Sara Lee was doing testing of the environment in the plant for cold-loving bacteria. Then their tests started coming up positive, so they stopped testing. They knew they had a problem with bacteria in the plant. But instead of solving it, they chose to ignore it.'

Sara Lee spokeswoman Julie Ketay was quoted as saying, 'The U.S. government doesn't think we knew in advance,' and since the outbreak, Sara Lee officials said new procedures have made Bil Mar and the company's other meat plants the safest in the industry. Two years ago this month, Dorothy Mayer, then 71, was hospitalized for nine weeks in Hinsdale, Ill., suffering from listeria meningitis. Mayer was quoted as saying Friday, 'I'm still having trouble. They had to drill into my head to take out an abscess. Then I had a stroke from it. My husband has taken good care of me.'

Frank Paluch, a 51-year-old Chicago Ridge resident who said he was made sick by the products, was quoted as saying, 'You didn't want to get better. You wanted to die. If they got a misdemeanor, we're getting no justice.'

Paluch was part of a class-action civil lawsuit that was settled by the company last year. Claims are still being reviewed in that agreement, but Sara Lee officials estimate the total won't exceed $5 million.

Paul Robinson, a criminal law expert at Northwestern University, was cited as saying that part of the critics' frustration comes from the unusual situation of Sara Lee's being charged criminally, adding, 'Regulators get extra leverage with companies if they use the threat of criminal charges, but whenever there is criminal liability for a non-person, the implications are different. It's often a poor substitute when you can't make a case against a real person. What sense does it make to morally condemn a logo?'

Doug Archer, a University of Florida food science expert, was quoted as saying, 'Listeriosis cases are down 50 percent since the late 1980s, largely due to the efforts of industry and regulatory agencies.'

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C., was quoted as saying, 'This is a pretty cheap price for 15 deaths and six miscarriages. The Agriculture Department had filed any number of complaints about conditions at the plant. I can't say I think justice was served.'