Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Peanut Butter Maker ConAgra Polices Itself

This was news to me:1

"In 2005 the [FDA] suspected that peanut butter manufactured by ConAgra Foods under different brand names might have been contaminated with salmonella. When agency inspectors went to the plant that made the peanut butter, the company acknowledged it had destroyed some product but declined to say why. The inspectors asked ConAgra for its records. According to the Congressional testimony of David Colo, the senior vice president for operations at ConAgra, the company refused, telling the inspectors they needed to put the request in writing.

Mr. Colo said the inspectors never followed through.

The public did not become aware of the contamination until February [2007], when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noticed a spike in salmonella-related illness and notified the F.D.A."
As of February 23, "329 individuals have become ill from consuming the contaminated peanut butter, and 51 of those persons were hospitalized."
- FDA Update on Salmonella Outbreak Linked to All Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Certain Lot Numbers of Great Value Brand Peanut Butter

(Update: The CDC reported "As of May 22, a total of 628 person [were] infected." See Peanut Butter From One Plant Reached 47 States.)

None of this looks like a deliberate attempt to harm. What it looks like, to my inexperienced eye, is some panic on the part of ConAgra, and carelessness all around. We need to see more care, if not real care, at least the appearance of care. To that end...

Dear ConAgra,

You make it difficult for me to lay out a case for industry self-regulation when you resist disclosure to an agency tasked with the job of protecting public health, and when that lack of transparency appears to have contributed to hundreds of cases of bacterial infection. Now, I'm no PR expert, but I have a feeling that if you'd like to continue to enjoy freedom from regulation, you might want to, in the future, come clean about any apparent lack of cleanliness - right off the bat. It will, at the minimum, look like you care.

With all good intentions,

Dear FDA,

I want to go to bat for you, I do. But please, when you start a job, finish it. Do you realize how wonderful it would have been in the eyes of the public, if ... mind you, I'm no PR princess ... if you appeared to be acting proactively instead of reactively? This was your opportunity! Now, I can't say what other crises you may have been reacting to, or how tightly allocated were your meager funds, or even what is entailed in putting a request in writing. But, you had this baby sniffed out and it looks like you just gave up when somebody dropped a meatier bone. There's a big election next year, one that could result in a nice windfall for your agency. If you don't want to see your food safety function (and its attendant dollars) absconded by a more take-charge Administrator, you're going to have to be more competent, or, at least, look like you care. So, next time ... "Dear ConAgra, Show us your records. Yours Truly, Food and Drug Administration." ... get that bone.

1 "Who’s Watching What We Eat?", Marion Burros, NYTs, May 16.
Photo: Homegrown. Boy, did I enjoy licking that knife.

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