Iconic food retailer Stew Leonard's finds itself in the middle of a food safety controversy, as news stories continue to be reported about the death of a 25-year-old woman who went into anaphylactic shock after eating a private label cookie from the retailer that contained peanuts but was not labeled as such.
The woman, Órla Baxendale, was a New York City ballet dancer who reportedly ate the cookie on January 11 at a social gathering. The cookie had been purchased at either the Danbury or Newington, Connecticut, Stew Leonard's store.
In response to the news reports, CEO Stew Leonard Jr. immediately posted a video on the company's website in which he expressed sadness at the woman's passing. Leonard said that while the cookie was identified as a private label product, it actually was sourced from an outside supplier that had changed its recipe to include peanuts without notifying the retailer's Chief Food Safety Officer. He said that the company has a "rigorous" process when it comes to labeling, especially as it concerns allergens like peanuts. Leonard emphasized that the family-owned company is "devastated" by the news, and said that he wanted to assure customers that the food they buy at Stew Leonard's is safe and labeled properly.
Almost immediately, Cookies United, the outside supplier, challenged Stew Leonard's version of events.
Walker G. Flanary III, General Counsel, the manufacturer's general counsel, said that "Stew Leonard’s was notified by Cookies United in July of 2023 that this product now contains peanuts and all products shipped to them have been labeled accordingly. This product is sold under the Stew Leonard’s brand and repackaged at their facilities. The incorrect label was created by, and applied to, their product by Stew Leonard’s.
"In the 24 hours since Cookies United learned of this tragedy we have been cooperating with the New York State Department of Agriculture and have been informed we are in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations relating to this product."
Cookies United also released nutrition and ingredient labels applied to the Chocolate Florentine and Vanilla Florentine cookies in question - both on the individual and case packaging - which clearly show that the products contain peanuts.
- KC's View:
This situation will continue to play out on a number of levels - legal, food safety, and in the public discourse. Let's try to take them in order, and from the outset, let me stipulate that nothing anyone says should diminish the fact that a young woman lost her life unnecessarily. The death of Órla Baxendale is a tragedy, her family and friends are in pain, and all the wrangling in the world about blame and perception won't bring her back or provide any sort of solace to the people she leaves behind. That's the real bottom line here.
From a legal perspective, the experts I spoke to last Friday - including Bill Marler, one of the most prominent food safety attorneys in the country - suggested that this will be a drawn out process that likely will take years to resolve. Litigation will take place, large checks will end up being written by someone, and insurance is likely to cover the damages. Marler told me that in many cases, a retailer's contract with the manufacturer will stipulate that all culpability in scenarios like these rest with the supplier, regardless of who actually is to blame. Experts also told me that the blame game - while unseemly since a woman has died - is inevitable because both the retailer and manufacturer are trying to protect their public images and business models.
From a food safety standpoint, I think the argument between the two sides is going to focus primarily on who at Stew Leonard's actually was informed of the ingredient change.
In its press release, Cookies United says that it send emails to 11 Stew Leonard's employees informing of the change in ingredients, and even lists the email addresses, though they are partially redacted - the company only provides the first letter and last letter of the email address, followed by "@stewleonards.com."
From long experience, I know how Stew Leonard's email protocol works - it is the first letter of the person's first name, the person's last name, followed by "@stewleonards.com."
This is where it gets interesting - the Chief Food Safety Officer at Stew Leonard's is Barbara Bucknam, and none of the email addresses provided by Cookies United appear to be hers. Experts I consulted with over the weekend told me that almost certainly, a contract between a retailer and a manufacturer in cases like these would require that any ingredient change would have to be communicated to the retailer's Chief Food Safety Officer, and in fact it would be that person who would be in charge of making label changes.
Another subject that came up during my conversations with food safety experts was why such a change was made at all - in the current environment, why would any company add allergens into a products rather than eliminate them. The common answer seemed to be that it could have been an effort to reduce costs - adding peanuts may have saved a penny or two on each cookie, and added some margin. If this is proven to be the case, it will yet again demonstrate why, just because you can do something, it does not necessarily mean you should do something.
Note: We will have more on the food safety angle in our next story, a video conversation with Retail InfoLink CEO Roger Hancock.
Finally, there is the matter of public perception and the position that Stew Leonard's occupies in the public discourse.
Regardless of how the debate over responsibility and culpability unfolds, it seems to me that the matter of trust is something that has to be top of mind for Stew Leonard's leadership. There is one thing that I noticed in almost all the headlines and ledes about this story: Stew Leonard's was mentioned by name. Only rarely did Cookies United's name get mentioned high up.
There's a reason for that. Stew Leonard's is a known quantity - as I said in my lede above, an iconic presence in the markets it serves. Nobody really knows what Cookies United is.
The news media's coverage of this story may subside in coming days, as the press moves onto the next hot topic. But I suspect that even in the short-term, there will be more stories. I wouldn't be surprised if the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal decides to do a broader story about the food safety regulatory ecosystem in America, and uses the Stew Leonard's Cookies United case as the entry point. I also think that it is very, very possible that "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" would see this as an opportunity to devote a half-hour to food safety, and again, Stew Leonard's would end up front and center because of its industry prominence.
All of which means that Stew Leonard's has to make sure that it is completely buttoned-down in terms of every label in its stores, that every label is accurate in every detail. Remember the Latin proverb that I quote here on a regular basis:
Trust, like the soul, never returns once it goes.
And remember that while there may be insurance policies that cover the financial aspects of this case, there is no insurance policy for consumer trust.