Two farmers were sentenced to five years of probation yesterday in a rare food contamination case. The farmers had used contaminated water in a scrubbing machine, a setup that introduced listeria bacteria to potentially their entire crop of cantaloupes. More than 30 people across the United States died in 2011 and 2012 as a result. Criminal prosecution is rare in food safety cases, and it is hard to imagine that this case would have been investigated without the large number of related illnesses and deaths.
It makes sense that food safety prosecutions are rare because inspections are far less expensive and more effective at preventing harm from food. There is not much deterrent effect in prosecutions for problems that are caused by lack of knowledge and, often, lack of attention. Unfortunately, we cannot expect an increase in food safety inspections. Federal budget cuts, especially last year, ensure that there will be fewer inspections and more contaminated food than before.