Make food safety a priority

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 600 people across the nation and led to the death of as many as nine — including two in Virginia — is a disturbing example of the vulnerability of the nation’s food supply. Despite the fact that salmonella had been found in peanut products manufactured in at least one of its plants, Peanut Corporation of America allegedly shipped those products out, anyway, endangering millions of Americans in pursuit of greater profits.

The results have been staggering: More than 2,000 different products containing the peanut butter produced by PCA have been recalled. The peanut industry is reeling under the stress of plummeting sales figures, as consumers choose to play it safe rather than risk being the test case that causes product recalls to expand even further. Employees at company plants in Texas, Georgia and, now, Suffolk have lost their jobs. The company’s creditors may never get paid. And at least one company executive faces the possibility of criminal charges.

Add in the suffering of those who were sick, as well as the loss felt by the families of those who died, and the costs for PCA’s alleged conduct strain society’s ability to forgive and forget. Internet blogs, in fact, are awash with commentators calling for the head of PCA President Stewart Parnell.

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We’ll let any criminal prosecution run its course without further comment on that aspect of the issue. But it is worth noting that — even if he ultimately is found guilty of the most pernicious of charges — nobody thinks Parnell wanted people to die. A terrorist would have had much more sinister motives than maximizing profit — he would have been intent on maximizing deaths. And he would have been successful, based on the poor federal and state oversight that apparently took place in this situation.

When government inspections revealed despicable conditions at PCA’s plants — rodents, roaches, mold and other potential adulterants in places where food-grade products were being made — the plants should have been shut down, not just warned or fined or directed to improve the conditions.

We can only hope that those who wish to see dead Americans are not paying attention to the toothlessness of the FDA and that Congress is looking for a way to improve the watchdog agency’s bite.