The notion that “the food police are coming” motivated attendees at the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference earlier this month to attend a session featuring Jeffrey Steger, assistant director in the Consumer Protection Branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, and prominent attorney Doug Fellman, a partner, at Hogan Lovells US LLP.

  • Take any inspection or government inquiry seriously. What may sound like an innocent question or request for documents can lead to a personal criminal prosecution down the road. Make sure your senior management team is prepared.
  • Be nice: This seems simple, but when FDA, or worse, DOJ shows up, anxiety increases and there may be a natural tendency to get defensive. While you may not want to treat an investigator like an old buddy, it’s important to always remain courteous and professional.
  • Tell the truth: Hedging the truth never does anyone any good. The documentation required by various FSMA-related regulations means that there will be a lot of evidence to sift through. Consult with an attorney so that you understand the legal bounds of the requests, but always be honest and straightforward.
  • Long before an investigation, make sure that you demonstrate a commitment to food safety. How do you manage the company’s budget — do you invest in employee food safety training? Have you made investments in infrastructure where necessary? If the company has had prior food safety issues, what did you do about it — not just what the plant manager or QA director did, but what did the CEO and senior executives do? Your past actions paint a picture of the food safety culture within your company, and it is company leadership who set that culture.

People — and prosecutors — have little tolerance for bad people when bad things happen. But the risks to good people who are doing their best have never been higher. That calls for the CEO to demonstrate the highest commitment to food safety, and be prepared in the unlikely event that an illness is connected to your company’s product. We all recognize that sometimes bad things happen to good people. Do all you can to be one of the good people, knowing that, at the end of the day, the decision to prosecute is up to the DOJ. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)