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Aftermath of the peanut-poisoning scandal

We have been harshly critical of food-bourne illnesses from China.  The peanut butter scandals of 2007 and 2008 have caused us to re-examine our own food safety record.  In short, the "modern" Food and Drug Administration, under-funded and recently headed by Republican appointees who don't believe in government regulation, is little better than a third-world bureaucracy. Even ignoring recent food recalls in other fields, tainted peanut butter informs us of our failures. 

As a recent New York Times article summarized:

The entire Peanut Corporation of America scandal which killed eight people and made 19,000 ill in 2008 and 2009, could have been avoided if the FDA had responded properly to the earlier ConAgra peanut butter scandal.  In 2004, a whistle blower employed at ConAgra's Sylvester, Georgia peanut butter plant reported that ConAgra found Salmonella in its peanut butter.  The Company simply refused to provide the FDA with copies of its salmonella testing records and the FDA did not follow up for three years.  Hundreds of people were sickened between 2004 and 2007, when the FDA finally demanded access to the records and didn't take "no" for an answer.

The 2004-2007 ConAgra "Peter Pan" scandal demonstrated numerous flaws that had lead to Salmonella contamination--most of which were present in the 2007-2008 Blakely, Georgia Peanut Corp. plant:  they documented raw peanuts stored near finished product; a roaster not calibrated to the proper temperature; minimum-wage workers, often supplied by temp agencies, with little or no training in proper sanitation; employees allowed to wear their work clothing home and to return to sanitary areas wearing clothing from home; leaking roofs allowing unsafe moisture into the processing areas; and even rat access to processing areas.

Had there been an appropriate response to the ConAgra scandal, the Blakely Peanut Corp. plant might have been thoroughly inspected by federal investigators, and eight lives would have been spared.  Instead, the State of Georgia was allowed to license the plant and it has only 60 inspectors for 16,000 food-processing facilities.  The Peanut Corporation sister plant in Texas had operated for years without even being licensed or inspected at all.  Even though major corporations like Kellogg relied on the Peanut Corporation for ingredients, no one at Kellogg bothered to monitor the safety of its suppliers.  When Peanut Corporation began to cut corners by purchasing cheap ingredients from Mexico and South America, hiring temp workers instead of a properly compensated full-time work force, and paying only lip service to sanitation, no one but the bean-counters even noticed or cared.

Despite 12 positive salmonella tests since 2007, the Peanut Corp. never stopped shipping product, never reported their findings to the government or the public, and took only superficial measures to improve sanitation.  Employees at the plant say they were notified in advance of impending government inspections and told to keep their mouths shut.  And with all of our resources, we end up with third-world quality food? 

The family-owned Peanut Corp has issued the standard fare "apology", lamenting the fact that its processes "didn't meet its own own goals."   Sounds just like the rich jocks who've been tripped up by drug testing or the financial "masters of the universe" finally brought to earth by their own greed.  Is anyone else sick and tired of hearing these high and mighty jerks who've had years to come clean--but don't--express their remorse only after they are caught and have hired a public relations consultant?  There should be a tax on media statements of remorse, similar to the residuals paid to actors:  that way, if we have to keep hearing them, the P.R. efforts of the malefactors would at least carry a cost to the perpetrators.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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