In April of 2015, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett sentenced Quality Egg LLC executives Austin “Jack” DeCoster (83) and his son Peter DeCoster (53) to prison in connection with a massive egg-related salmonella outbreak. Since then, the two have been free pending appeals. Now, justice is closer for the 60,000 plus victims who were likely victims of the salmonella outbreak they enabled. The sentence is relative short – only three months in prison – but with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to reverse the sentence, they are off to jail, For Peter, it will be at a minimum security prison in Yankton, South Carolina sometime after July 30th. For Jack, he has to wait until his son is released to begin his sentence in Berlin, New Hampshire. Judge Bennett approved his request to serve his time at that location.
Judge Bennett wrote:
“Given the defendants’ careless oversight and repeated violations of safety standards, there is an increased likelihood that these offenses, or offenses like these, could happen again,” he wrote. “The punishment will also serve to effectively deter against the marketing of unsafe foods and widespread harm to public health by similarly situated corporate officials and other executives in the industry.”
Both men, executives of Quality Egg products, pleaded guilty to introducing the adulterated eggs into interstate commerce. They were sentenced after the judge determined they had made significant misrepresentations concerning food safety, sanitation practices and procedures, and that they had manufactured false documents that were being required by an independent auditor. Both executives were also held responsible for claiming they conducted flock testing to prevent the spread of salmonella even though such testing was never performed. They were also guilty of bribing a USDA inspector to release deficient eggs, lying about expiration dates and quality.
The Court’s ultimate finding was that the DeCosters had established a “work environment where employees not only felt comfortable disregarding regulations and bribing USDA officials, but may have even felt pressure to do so.”
After Conviction: Appeals Followed
The DeCosters first appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals saying they were being jailed for crimes that they had not personally committed. The Eighth Circuit rejected that argument, noting the DeCosters had a clear responsibility under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) to prevent the spread of adulterated food. The Court held that FDA regulations do not require specific knowledge of the adulteration.
When the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals denied their appeal, they took it to the Supreme Court, filing a 232-page petition in 2016 on the same basis. A number of influential groups (among which are the National Association of Manufacturers, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and the libertarian Cato Institute) wrote in support of their defense, arguing it was dangerous to hold corporate officials liable for the actions of subordinates. They were hopeful given the business favorable make-up of the Supreme Court today. The Supreme Court, however, refused (without comment) to hear the case in a May 22nd decision.
So last week, the judge ordered that Peter DeCoster must begin his three-month sentence at a federal facility in South Dakota in the weeks to come. The exact window for beginning the sentence is still to be set by the Bureau of Prisons.