I am behind the news curve due to some joyous personal developments which have left me lately preoccupied. I have been very eager to write about the cantaloupe recall because it underscores an important legal liability faced by farmers and food entrepreneurs.
Last summer we were all entranced by the recall of 500 million eggs infected with salmonella enteritidis. The majority of the contaminated eggs came from an Iowa company called Wright County Eggs. During the height of the media frenzy, The Atlantic did an awesome hit piece on Jack Decoster, owner of Wright County Eggs and ovum super-villain. The article is a comprehensive list of Decoster’s labor disputes, child labor violations, beetle infestations, mass chicken graves, explosive OSHA violations, dung-mountains, plagues of flies, and horrific record of animal abuse. As you read it, keep in mind that the Atlantic article does not mention the equally horrifying conditions in the plant which produced the contaminated products. His cartoonishly excessive corporate malfeasance made a deadly outbreak inevitable.
Contrast this with the family-owned farm responsible for the current cantaloupe crisis. Jensen Farms is a commercially successful operation with a solid reputation. By all accounts, the family members do their best to run a reputable farm which is well-respected by peers. I am sure they were stunned to hear that their products ended up hurting and killing people. Check out the 00:48 mark on this Youtube vid – Eric Jensen is so genuinely grief stricken by the illnesses that he can barely get out a sentence without breaking down. Notice that there is no slick PR rep performing triage for the cameras. It’s just a hard working, honest farmer trying to come to terms with a terrible stroke of bad luck.
I began this post about cantaloups by talking about eggs to demonstrate the principle of strict liability for food producers who sell contaminated products. In the eyes of the law, Jack Decoster and Eric Jensen are equally culpable for the illnesses caused by their food. Strict liability in tort law makes a person liable for the harm caused by their food products without regard to negligence, misbehavior, malfeasance or even gross disregard for consumer safety. It is the highest level of responsibility imposed by civil law and it is the standard of care imposed by the majority of states upon their farmers and food entrepreneurs. Civil liability attaches to any producer who puts a dangerous or contaminated food product into the stream of commerce. This is true whether a food producer behaves like Jack Decoster, Scourge of the Caged Hen, or the eminently reputable and consciencious Jensen Family.
Strict liability is a potentially enormous risk for any agricultural or food business, but it is not beyond control. A professional consultation will identify if you live in a strict liability state. You can also have your business structure audited to ensure that your personal assets are protected from the damage caused by your farm or food product. You may also want to have your business practices assessed to see if some higher-risk activities, like the marketing of raw milk, should be abandoned altogether. No matter what, if you are in the food business, you need to involve a professional in your risk management strategy. Continued ownership of your land may one day depend on it.