business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that two executives with Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) – president Stewart Parnell and plant manager Sammy Lightsey – refused to answer question before the Congressional panel investigating the salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 600 people, killed nine, and has been linked to the Georgia plant for which they were responsible.

According to the report, the two men refused to enter the hearing room during testimony offered by victims of the salmonella outbreak. When they finally appeared before the committee, they “refused to answer any questions from committee members - including whether they would eat any of their own products, which one congressman showed off in a plastic container wrapped with yellow caution tape,” the paper writes.

Indeed, in testimony and evidence presented to the committee, a clear picture was painted of a company and management more concerned with profits than food safety.

The Journal-Constitution reports that “e-mails between Parnell and Lightsey, manager of the company’s Blakely plant, were released as part of the hearing opened by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of a House subcommittee on oversight and investigation.

“In one e-mail, Lightsey wrote Parnell discussing positive salmonella tests on its products, but Parnell gave instructions to nonetheless ‘turn them loose’ after getting a negative test result from another testing company, according to testimony.

“In another e-mail, Parnell expressed his concerns over losing ‘$$$$$$’ due to delays in shipment and costs of testing.

“Parnell in another company-wide e-mail told employees there was no salmonella in its plants, instead accusing the news media of ‘looking for a news story where there currently isn’t one’.

“Even in the heat of the nationwide outbreak that has killed nine people and sickened hundreds more, Parnell seemed more worried about his company’s profits than with food safety, according to regulators and congressional investigators.”

At the same time, the paper notes, there seems to be ample evidence that the system designed to insure public safety broke down:

“The Georgia Department of Agriculture conducted two inspections of the company’s Blakely, Ga., plant in 2008, but did not test for salmonella on its own on either occasion - despite an internal agency goal to conduct such tests once a year.

“The company’s largest customers, including Kellogg’s engaged contractors to conduct audits, but they did not conduct their own salmonella tests.

“The FDA did not test for salmonella at the plant, despite the 2007 salmonella outbreak traced to the Con-Agra plant about 70 miles from Peanut Corp. of America’s Blakely plant.”

Furthermore, testimony was given to the committee to the effect that workers at the company’s Georgia plant were given government training in how to avoid salmonella contamination – but never put the procedures into place. And, plant officials refused to act in cases where salmonella contaminated products were discovered and shipped.

After the hearings yesterday, Consumers Union issued a statement calling for Congress “to increase penalties against companies that ship adulterated food and to overhaul food safety laws so problems like this do not recur. And, it asked Congress to “require FDA to conduct annual inspections of food processing facilities, require processors like PCA to test for contaminants like salmonella, require these companies to disclose when their own tests find tainted products, and to increase fines and penalties against those who ship contaminated products.”

KC's View:
There’s no other way to put it. These PCA guys are disgusting.

My stomach actually wretches at the thought of these guys being utterly cavalier about their responsibility for food safety and public health.

Kudos, however, to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), who had the panache to ask these clowns to eat a product made from their own peanut butter. (Forced feeding of these products to the company executives ought to be part of their sentence when they get convicted…and I hope they get hit with the maximum possible sentence.)

Let’s be clear, though. It isn’t just these two guys. There had to be plenty of people working in the plant who could have called the authorities at any time. And they didn’t, as far as we know at this time.

This case has exposed all the inadequacies, inefficiencies and lack of transparency in the US food safety system.

But here’s the real problem. Does anyone doubt that there are plenty of other cases out there in which there has been similarly disgusting behavior, similarly inadequate oversight and regulation, and similar public vulnerability to food borne illness?

It is not a matter of “if” another case will occur. It is a matter of “when.”