By Guest Blogger Per Ramfjord  

In my February 3, 2009 blog entry, I briefly discussed the steps a company should take to avoid criminal prosecution under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. The FDA’s criminal investigation of Peanut Corporation of America continues to provide lessons on this subject—in particular, on what not to do.  

The enormous public harm caused by the company’s actions, coupled with its seemingly cavalier attitude to contamination already created a high risk of prosecution. But that risk was heightened still further on February 5, 2009, when the FDA issued an amended investigatory report indicating that company management did not initially provide complete and accurate information regarding the testing of contaminated products.  

This report and other information disclosed by the FDA shows that PCA management initially told the FDA that the company had shipped products that had tested positive for salmonella only after the products had been retested and it did not appear that they were contaminated. But this information was apparently inconsistent with company records, which, according to the report, showed that the company sometimes shipped products before it even received the positive test results and that, when it did so, it did not always even bother to do re-testing to find out if the positive results were false. This type of inconsistency between management statements and company records is precisely the type of misstep that companies should seek to avoid in a criminal investigation.  

The Department of Justice has published its Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations. According to those Principles, one of the key factors that the government looks to in deciding whether to charge a company criminally is the “corporation’s timely and voluntary disclosure of wrongdoing and its willingness to cooperate in the investigation.” Any statements that are inconsistent with company records or the statements of other company employees are likely to be viewed as a failure to “come clean” under this standard. Indeed, should the government conclude that there was an active effort to conceal negative information, it is likely to go a step further and add charges against company management for false statements or obstruction of justice to the other charges in the underlying case.  

Again, this underscores the need to engage in a prompt, thorough and complete investigation as soon as possible when a potential problem arises. Equally important, it shows the need to exercise caution in verifying any statements that are provided to the government, particularly early in an investigation when there is a great deal of pressure—both from the government and the public—to provide an explanation of what happened. Putting too positive a “spin” on the events is virtually certain to backfire, as it appears to have done with PCA management.  

Update by Richard Goldfarb

As though to show the truth of what Per wrote, the FBI just announced that it would participate in the investigation of PCA, while the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations would remain the lead investigative agency.