Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Peanut Recall: Where Was the FDA?

The media continues to be flooded with news about the recall of peanuts and peanut products processed by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in its facilities in Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. In yesterday’s post (read it HERE), I shared some news stories, which, considered in aggregate, illustrate the breadth and depth of this tragedy.

Of course, every one (including me) believes that primary responsibility lies with Stewart Parnell, owner of PCA. Mr. Parnell will long be remembered as the man who ordered employees to 1) conceal test results showing that PCA’s peanut products were contaminated with salmonella; 2) re-package and re-label those contaminated products; and 3) ship those contaminated products to hundreds of food manufacturers, retailers, and distributors, for sale to consumers. The e-mail trail that Mr. Parnell left behind him documents all this quite nicely.

PCA is the subject of a federal criminal investigation which could lead to charges against Mr. Parnell and other company officials. In addition to knowingly distributing contaminated food products, PCA has resisted FDA’s investigation every step of the way, and even failed to issue a general recall until February 23! On February 22, Texas health officials were forced to take control of the recall of products from PCA's Plainview plant, describing the company as “unresponsive.” Texas inspectors said they closed the Plainview plant after finding “filthy conditions” there. Georgia officials have already indicated that if the federal government does not pursue charges, they will move to charge Mr. Parnell with manslaughter.

[Some people have opined that as punishment for his antisocial, arrogant disregard for human life and the laws under which we agree to live, Mr. Parnell should be forced to eat his own contaminated products. But as I do not support capital punishment, I can’t endorse that suggestion, though it is elegant in simplicity and justness.]
Mr. Parnell’s criminal negligence was aided and abetted by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’s own report indicates that the agency was aware of salmonella in PCA’s products as far back as September 26, 2008.*

Why didn’t the FDA order an immediate shutdown of the facility until it could be sanitized, inspected, and certified as safe?

Here’s the simple answer: The FDA lacks the enforcement power to shut down a company that is posing an immediate threat to the health and safety of the nation’s food supply. The FDA cannot even force a company to recall dangerous products (with the exception of infant formula). And in the event that a company does issue a voluntary recall, the FDA does not have the authority (or resources) to ensure that the recall is executed promptly and thoroughly.**

The FDA has been pathetically underfunded and cannot possibly carry out its charge to ensure the safety of the many, many thousands of foods, drugs, and medical devices that fall under its jurisdiction. The job is simply too big, and the agency has been underfunded and de-fanged in recent years by the pro-business Bush administration. Business owners like Mr. Parnell, who was annoyed to have to pay for food-safety testing, have wielded sufficient influence with pro-business politicians to weaken the regulations that keep those businesses honest.

In that context, consider the flood of peanut-related recalls that have been issued in the past several weeks. Those are all voluntary recalls, issue via the FDA but not by the FDA. How many food processors do you think might be out there who have not spent the time or money to determine if their ingredients might have originated at PCA? Or how many food processors might know that they used some contaminated products a few years back, but have decided not to reveal that information? There’s no law that requires them to do so, and the FDA can’t make them do it, either.

I have been favorably impressed, however, with the skill with which the FDA has provided information. The FDA’s website offers a huge amount of information in an easy-to-use format, making it easy for consumers to identify affected products. A 24-7 phone hotline is available for people who do not use computers, and a nice menu of updating services makes it easy to stay abreast of developments.

One more rant for tomorrow, and then I’ll be done with this topic. There’s another player who had a responsibility to take action in this case, but this very troubling aspect of the story has not been reported, nor is it ever likely to be. Tune in tomorrow.

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If you still haven’t checked your pantry for contaminated products, do it today!

If you’ve stopped eating peanut butter but are still eating trail mix energy bars, you’re in trouble!

Click HERE or HERE to learn what to do to protect yourself and your family.


Most major-brand peanut butter is OK!
Most other peanut-containing foods are NOT OK!


* “FDA Inspection Report of PCA's Georgia Facility Details Lapses in Food Safety Protocols.” Associated Content, January 28, 2009.

** “Unsafe To Eat? Peanuts Highlight Problem; Food safety system hamstrung for decades.” The Hartford Courant, February 18, 2009

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