“Though Peanut Corp of America has been cited for responsibility in nine deaths and more than 700 illnesses from Salmonella in its peanut butter, its president, Stewart Parnell, has remained seemingly immune from prosecution nearly three years after the fact.
Same with Austin “Jack” DeCoster of Wright County Egg, which was linked to as many as 1,700 illnesses from Salmonella in its eggs in 2010.
But a relatively small 2010 Midwest outbreak of 25 illnesses (and no deaths) from Campylobacter in raw milk seems to have brought the ire of law enforcement down on the owners of two tiny farms in Indiana and Michigan. A federal grand jury in Detroit is investigating bringing criminal charges against an Amish farmer in Indiana who produced the milk, and a Michigan farmer who helped distribute it to several private food clubs.
Under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury…” What might the “capital, or otherwise infamous crime” be in this case?
No one can say for sure, of course, since grand jury proceedings are highly secretive affairs. The names of jury members aren’t released, witnesses subpoenaed don’t have the right to have a lawyer present, and all involved on the prosecution side are cautioned not to disclose information about the events.
One thing that is known about grand juries in general is that prosecutors usually get their way. Quips one former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice: “We used to joke, if a prosecutor asked a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, they would.”
According to this former assistant U.S. attorney, the federal prosecutor in the Midwest raw milk case could be looking at a number of options leading to criminal indictments. Felony violations of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act include adulterating or misbranding a food, along with putting an adulterated or misbranded food into interstate commerce.
Convictions “with the intent to defraud or mislead” are punishable by up to three years in jail, plus a fine of up to $10,000 on each count. “They could add conspiracy, aiding and abetting, fraud, money laundering, and other things,” he says.
If criminal felony indictments come from the grand jury, they could represent the harshest federal action yet taken against individual farmers in the six-year government war against raw milk, and possibly the harshest against any food producer associated with outbreaks of illness in recent memory.
Even though the grand jury proceedings are secret, several key aspects of the case have become known since the two farmers — David Hochstetler, owner of Forest Grove Dairy, Middlebury, IN, and Richard Hebron, owner of Family Farms Cooperative in Vandalia, MI –were originally ordered to testify last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. The questioning was postponed at the last minute, and a new date is now being arranged. But the list of documents each farmer was asked to produce indicates the interest of prosecutors:…”