A Downey man who falsely certified that beef being sold by his employer was free of E. coli bacteria — a lie that led to the recall of 5.7 million pounds of meat products — was sentenced Thursday to probation and home detention in what the judge called a “very difficult case.”
Jim Johnson, a four-decade veteran of the beef industry who worked as a consultant to the now-defunct Huntington Meat Packing Co., was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin to pay a share of $307,000 in restitution.
Johnson, 68, pleaded guilty last year to a federal false-statements charge.
“There is no explanation for why he committed this crime,” Olguin said.
Huntington Meat was a Montebello-based meat processing and distribution company that sold raw ground beef used by other companies to make products such as beef patties and burrito mix. Under a food safety plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Huntington Meat was required to test its products for safety.
Johnson admitted that in 2010, he knowingly and willfully provided the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service with a fake Certificate of Analysis, which falsely stated that a beef sample from the company had tested negative for E. coli.
Subsequent lab results showed some of that meat was contaminated with the bacteria, which prompted food regulators to issue the recall.
There were no illnesses linked to the recalled beef, according to the USDA.
“I am truly sorry for what I have done,” Johnson told the court. “I never meant to hurt anyone.”
Defense attorney John Hanusz acknowledged that his client broke the law by “short-circuiting the testing process,” but argued that Johnson knew that the untested beef would be cooked by consumers and the heating process would kill any possible contamination.
“He at no time did anything that would put anyone at risk,” Hanusz told the court.
But prosecutors pointed out that during a year of issuing phony safety certificates, Johnson could have exposed countless people to deadly food poisoning since not all consumers use the same cooking methods when preparing, for example, beef patties.
In determining the sufficiency of a three-year probationary sentence, including a year of home detention and 200 hours of community service, Olguin found that Johnson’s crime was an “aberration” in an otherwise law-abiding, “charitable” life.
The defendant, who was accompanied to court by more than a dozen members of his extended family, raised four children and fostered about 20 more, the judge said.
“The court has rarely seen a level of (family) support as it has in this case,” Olguin said, calling his sentencing decision “one of the more difficult” he has encountered.
Johnson had faced up to five years in federal prison for the felony offense.
The judge said Johnson was no longer employed in the meat processing business, and his age potentially put him among the 2 percent of federal prisoners over 65 years old — which placed him at risk of abuse at the hands of younger inmates.
The judge apparently agreed with Hanusz that incarcerating Johnson “would not serve any legitimate purpose.”
E. coli is a potentially deadly germ that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration and, in severe cases, kidney failure. The germ can be killed by cooking fresh and frozen meat products to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
—City News Service
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