Wednesday, September 23, 2015

From peanut gallery to rogues gallery

It’s a bad week for corporate malfeasance. Or a good week, depending on which way you look at it.

There was the Volkswagen brouhaha (which I posted on yesterday), and then there was Stewart Parnell, former head of the Peanut Corporation of America. Parnell’s going to be spending the next 28 years behind bars for his roll in a salmonella outbreak that’s implicated in nine deaths – “potentially the toughest punishment in U.S. history for a producer in a foodborne illness case.” Parnell is 61, so 28 years is pretty much a life sentence.

Parnell’s brother Michael, a food broker, will be serving 20 years in the stir. And Mary Wilkerson, who was in charge of the company’s quality control, got a five-year term.

The case stemmed from U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention findings that traced a national salmonella outbreak to the Parnell company's peanut roasting plant in Blakely, Ga. The outbreak sickened 714 people in 46 states and may have contributed to nine deaths, the CDC reported.

The illnesses began in January 2009 and ultimately prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

A federal jury convicted Parnell last September on 71 criminal counts, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and introduction of adulterated food. The verdict came after prosecutors presented evidence that Parnell and the co-defendants knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted peanut butter from the Georgia facility to Kellogg’s and other customers — who in turn used it in products ranging from packaged crackers to pet food. (Source: USA Today)

The devil’s in the details:

Among other goodies, the Feds found that the Peanut Corporation was a breeding ground for salmonella: leaky roof, roaches, rodents, bird droppings and all.

Bad enough that Peanut Corp. was a petri dish as far as salmonella was concerned. The real kicker was emails and records that show that food stuff known to contain salmonella was knowingly shipped to their customers. For other batches of peanuts, the company faked up records showing that tests for salmonella were negative. They may or may not of been. Who knew? Not the Parnells or Wilkerson. No tests were ever done.

As someone who consumes her fair share of peanut butter  - I’m a locavore: Teddie’s only; not the the peanuts are local, but the company is – I’m delighted to see these clowns go away. Hundreds of people were sickened, and nine may have been killed.

I’m also wondering what the working conditions were at the Peanut Corporation of America.

No, I don’t suppose they were quite as bad as those found by Upton Sinclair when he took a look at the early 20th century meat-packing industry. His exposé –  fictionalized in The Jungle - helped bring about laws about meat inspection, as well as the establishment of the FDA.

Good to keep in mind that, even with regulation, we still need regulation. Sure, you can wait for the market to clean house. But it doesn’t do the 714 sick and the nine dead much good that Peanut Corporation of America is now defunct.

Not surprisingly, a defense attorney (not, I think, Parnell’s), Ken Hodge, finds the sentence “absurd.”

"The truth of the matter is Stewart Parnell ate that peanut butter; he fed it to his children and fed it to his grandchildren," Hodges said in the interview. "He never intended to harm anyone."

I’m sure he didn’t deliberately and intentionally set out to slaughter an innocent bunch of folks who, like me, like to feast on an occasional PBJ. But he played fast and loose with the truth about the condition of his product because it was going to cost him $$$ if he didn’t get his wares out the door.

And now it’s really cost him. If his appeals don’t work, he’ll probably live out his years in prison.

Parnell claims that he didn’t know what was going on, but there were three little words in one little email in which he ordered a plant management to “just ship it.”

Pretty amazing news this week. We have a major, respected multinational – Volkswagen – playing fast and loose with emissions standards. And a small company that no one would have otherwise heard of – Peanut Corporation of America -  who made a big mistake when they decided to cross their fingers and hope that that tainted peanuts were really okay enough.

Interesting that much of Peanut Corp’s business was institutional, with their peanuts making their way into products for prisons.

The Parnells and Ms. Wilkerson must be hoping that the vendors supplying the food they’ll be dining on maintain higher standards than their outfit did.

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