By guest blogger Per Ramfjord

The FDA’s recent announcement that it is pursuing a criminal investigation of Peanut Corporation of America, arising out of the Salmonella-driven peanut product recall, is sure to raise concerns with executives in food product companies throughout the country. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s comment that the Obama administration intends to put in place a “stricter regulatory structure” to prevent breakdowns in food safety only heightens that concern.

And looking at the law, there are reasons to be concerned. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act criminalizes under sections 331 and 333 more than two dozen practices, including a host of activities associated with the manufacture or sale of contaminated food products. The potential punishment for such offenses includes corporate fines and the possible imprisonment of executives for up to one year for misdemeanor offenses or up to three years for felony violations. The burden of proof to establish such crimes against corporate executives is very low. For misdemeanor offenses, the government needs to prove only that the violation occurred under the executive’s watch; it need not show that the executive had any actual criminal intent or personal involvement in the violation. For felony violations, the government can prove the required intent simply by showing that a defendant consciously avoided knowledge of the violation or was involved in a prior violation.

So, the question arises, what should companies do to avoid prosecution if they become aware of potential criminal violations? The obvious first step is to stop the offending practice as quickly as possible and to identify and take any available remedial action, up to and potentially including a recall. Although there may be concern that the remedial action or recall may itself draw attention to the problem, the benefits of acting in a manner that the government deems responsible will pay off down the road. The second step is to investigate the violation immediately, with counsel, to develop facts that can help steer the case away from criminal enforcement. The FDA will almost always hold a “Section 305” meeting to allow a company to tell its side of the story before initiating a criminal prosecution. The decision about whether to prosecute will be based on factors such as the nature and seriousness of the offense, the potential deterrent effects of prosecution, and the company’s or individual’s culpability, criminal history, and willingness to cooperate. Uncovering evidence to show that the event in question was isolated in nature, due to unique and excusable circumstances, and not part of a pattern of misconduct or noncompliance is critical to making such a meeting a success and to the company’s overall defense going forward. Finally, an important third step is avoiding pitfalls during the investigation itself that could contribute to the government’s decision to prosecute. The current enforcement atmosphere is one in which the “cover-up” is often deemed worse (and more likely to spark prosecution) than the “crime.” Avoiding any false statements, document destruction, or other actions that the government could construe as constituting obstruction of justice is therefore of vital importance.

In sum, obviously the best way to avoid prosecution is to avoid violations, particularly through adopting policies and procedures that minimize risk. But once a potential violation has been discovered, it is vital to respond quickly and with the benefit of counsel who know and understand the system. While any enforcement proceedings are unfortunate, the prospect of criminal proceedings, with their potential of adverse publicity to the company and incarceration of executives, poses unique problems that require a rapid and focused response.