Peanut Corp. Food Safety Violations are Inexcusable

Feb. 9, 2009
Peanut Corp.’s food safety violations look inexcusable.

Is execution too severe a penalty for the tainted peanut-products incident that was unwinding at the end of January?

By coincidence, the same week Peanut Corp. of America backdated its recall of products to January 2007 and the FDA announced numerous apparent violations at the Blakely, Ga., manufacturing facility, the Chinese government sentenced to death three people convicted of intentionally adulterating milk products with melamine last year.

Recall that 18 months earlier, China executed the head of its food and drug safety agency for taking bribes that first put the word melamine on the lips of consumers around the world.

Barbaric, isn’t it? Thank heavens we’re not so primitive.

And yet, what does it take for some people in the food and beverage industry to get it? I’m not talking about you, of course, I’m talking about other people in the business, those who pay lip service to the concept of putting food safety first and foremost and then allow roofs to leak, puddles to form on the floor and salmonella to creep into the food.

And then go about recalling two years’ worth of peanut-ingredient production after perhaps eight people have died and the food and beverage industry in general gets another black eye. A year ago it was peanut butter – remember that one, ConAgra? – under similarly dirty plant conditions.

As we were going to press, the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations said it’s working with the U.S. Justice Dept. looking into possible criminal violations at the PCA plant. The FDA reported the facility identified the presence of salmonella on 12 occasions during 2007 and 2008. Instead of destroying the product and investigating further, the company sent out second samples that came up negative, so the peanut products were released to customers. Customers like you, Kellogg, and you, too, General Mills and Ralcorp.

For the record: “PCA categorically denies any allegations that the Company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products,” according to a company statement.

Even when the salmonella strain was identified as coming from PCA’s peanut paste line on Sept. 26 of last year, “The firm continued to manufacture peanut paste in this system … to the beginning of this inspection on 1/9/09,” an FDA citation says.

You normally would expect a statement in defense of the company or at least of caution from the company’s trade association, But the American Peanut Council said the FDA report uncovers “clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer … While we will of course wait for the full report, this apparent failure to follow food safety regulations must be condemned in the strongest possible terms."

It’s difficult to claim negligence when fresh produce comes down with a case of E. coli. The product is grown in soil, in fields roamed by animals at night. Minimal processing is part of its attraction.

But it’s more difficult to excuse a company that sends red-flagged product out for a second opinion. I talked with some plant operations people who expressed sufficient concern and even a little outrage, but they didn’t want to indict PCA. I think they felt, “Hey, it could happen to any of us.” But I don’t think it could. The guys I know are too diligent to not react swiftly and sternly if even a suspicion of a problem arose.

A former plant manager I know, in a whole different industry, said I had to understand “the enormity of the pressure, even when the product is not quite right, to get that product out the door. It can make people just stop thinking right,” he said.

I hope nobody reading this succumbs to that pressure. This is food safety we’re talking about, not metal stampings.

I wasn’t talking about you, was I?

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