The Des Moines Register writes in this editorial that four months ago, Iowa egg producers Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter, were each sentenced to 90 days in prison for their role in the nation’s largest egg-related Salmonella outbreak.
They’ve filed briefs with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with the DeCosters in arguing that while fines and probation are acceptable in such cases, it’s unconstitutional to put corporate executives behind bars for the criminal actions of their underlings.
It’s an interesting case with major legal and ethical implications. After all, mere fines aren’t much of a deterrent to executives who collect multi-million-dollar salaries. But a 90-day stint in prison, as the DeCosters themselves argue in their court filings, carries with it the “personal loss and stigma” associated with becoming a convict.
In this case, a prison sentence certainly seems warranted. The Quality Egg salmonella outbreak of 2010 sickened at least 56,000 people (about 1,800 confirmed) and triggered a record-setting recall of more than half a billion eggs.
As to whether the DeCosters themselves were to blame for the outbreak, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett found the two men had created a “culture of rampant safety violations” and a “work environment where employees not only felt comfortable disregarding regulations and bribing USDA officials, but may have even felt pressure to do so.”
The editorial conclueds that tens of thousands of people were sickened as a direct result of the manner in which the DeCosters managed — or, rather, mismanaged — Quality Egg and its employees. For that, the DeCosters should be held accountable. A prison sentence is entirely appropriate.