Sep 10, 2001
This June, federal prosecutors made a deal with Sara Lee Corporation, concerning an outbreak of listeriosis in 1998. Fifteen people died, six women miscarried, and at least 80 more were made seriously ill by hot dogs and deli meats produced by Sara Lee's Bil Mar Foods manufacturer in Michigan.
Sara Lee admitted it manufactured and distributed contaminated meat, a MISDEMEANOR charge carrying a maximum fine of $200,000. The corporation also agreed to spend three million dollars on food safety research and to pay back more than a million dollars to the Agriculture Department, which had bought some of the contaminated meat. In addition, the corporation settled out of court with the families of those who died and those who were sickened, after class action lawsuits were filed.
Sara Lee also spent 25 million dollars to clean up the Bil Mar plant, which is a drop in the bucket compared with the profits made year after year by this 17-billion-dollar a year corporation. (Apparently the clean-up didn't solve Sara Lee’s problem of manufacturing contaminated meat products, because this July it had to recall 13,000 pounds of lunch meats for possible salmonella contamination.)
During a hearing confirming the June settlement, a U.S. attorney in Michigan federal court stated, "The government uncovered no evidence that Sara Lee intentionally distributed adulterated meat. Nor was there any evidence the company and its personnel attempted to cover up evidence or obstruct meat inspection procedures."
Some workers say otherwise, and they said so in a report that went to the U.S. attorney's office during the investigation of this Bil Mar case against Sara Lee. This report has just been made public – AFTER a copy of the report found its way into the hands of a newspaper reporter.
In April 1998, months before the listeriosis outbreak, workers said they were allowed to send out meat for sale even if they suspected listeria. So long as they were NOT SURE meat was contaminated, they could send it out. The company had lab test results that were kept secret from Agriculture Department inspectors. Furthermore, management ignored microbial contaminants, even though they had to credit money back to a company that bought 218 cases of meat which tested positive for listeria.
In every industry, on every production line, workers listen to managers ignoring problems of quality because they interfere with getting out the production. “Ship it anyway,” they say, even if the defective product is food. Sara Lee was just acting like every other capitalist concern.
The meat industry, and every other food industry, will continue to produce contaminated products because businesses produce food for profit. Our health and safety is their concern only when we force them to pay attentionto it.