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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, December/January 2010

Send a Strong Message

by Ken Potuznik

Ken Potuznik

Last week a colleague forwarded an eNewsletter to me that jogged my memory. I just can’t believe it’s true. During a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions food safety hearing on October 22, Freshman Senator Al Franken asked Margaret Hamburg, MD, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) commissioner, about the status of the criminal prosecution of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

Although I have followed the case since it broke in late 2008, it had slipped my mind. It became an international story in January 2009 when the FDA reported that PCA had detected 12 batches of product that tested positive for Salmonella. PCA had those batches retested by another lab, got a negative result, and sent the product off to manufacturers, who used it in a variety of foods.

The entire story shook my belief that a company in this industry wouldn’t purposely endanger the health and lives of consumers. I felt betrayed. But after watching the Congressional hearing in which both PCA president Stewart Parnell and Sammy Lightsey, manager of the PCA plant in Blakely, Ga., refused to eat from a jar of recalled product, I believed the federal government would make an example of PCA and swiftly bring the company to justice.

The U.S. food industry faces a wary consumer. Now is the time to prove that industry and government won’t tolerate threats to consumers’ health.

Instead, Dr. Hamburg’s answer to Senator Franken was that the criminal investigation and prosecution are ongoing. Despite public outrage over one of the largest product recalls ever, no one has yet been charged.

While federal prosecutions in foodborne illness outbreaks are rare, food safety experts and legal analysts said the Salmonella investigation seemed cut-and-dried. After all, the Congressional hearing uncovered e-mails from Parnell to employees, amid reports that Salmonella had been detected in his products, to “turn them loose.” He also said the business desperately needed to turn raw peanuts into money.

I have been fortunate to work in the food industry for the last 22 years. During that time, I have met countless dedicated professionals who take pride in their work and the products they deliver. As with anything, however, it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the barrel.

In 2007, the former head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed for corruption after being convicted of taking bribes and dereliction of duty. Zheng’s sentence was unusually harsh because Chinese officials wanted to use his execution to demonstrate their control of the crisis and to show that those who abused their power would be punished.

Obviously, I don’t condone the execution of those responsible for this act, but a strong message needs to be sent that neither the government nor the food industry will tolerate risking the public’s health for profit.

The U.S. food industry faces a wary consumer. Now is the time to prove that industry and government won’t tolerate threats to consumers’ health. The message must be strong: Anyone who deliberately endangers the public’s health will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of our country’s laws.

All the Best,
Ken Potuznik
Associate Publisher

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