Grave consequences

Published 10:47 pm Monday, February 25, 2013

If there were any question how serious the issue of tainted food could be, it was settled during the 2008-2009 outbreak of salmonella that claimed the lives of nine people who had eaten products with corrupted peanut butter processed by Lynchburg-based Peanut Corporation of America, which also owned the Tidewater Blanching Corp. facility here in Suffolk.

If there were any question how seriously federal officials take the nation’s laws governing food processing companies, it was settled last week, when five officials from PCA were indicted on various charges stemming from that company’s lax approach toward public health.

The indictments allege that company shipped contaminated products even after receiving positive salmonella tests on samples of those lots. In addition, the defendants allegedly fabricated test results to conceal positive tests or indicate a negative test when no test at all had actually been performed. Further, the indictments allege that three of the company officials gave false or misleading answers to investigators in January 2009. One of the indicted officials already has pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead.

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Though it was never implicated in the salmonella scandal, the Suffolk plant had plenty of problems of its own, as investigators touring the building discovered dead mice, gaps in strip curtains that could have allowed pests into the facility and 43 totes full of shelled, blanched peanuts that had black, green and yellow mold on the outside of the bags and on the peanuts at the top of the containers.

The courts will decide whether the remaining indicted officials are guilty of the allegations — fabricating test results and shipping product that had tested positive for the deadly bacteria. American consumers — to say nothing of the victims’ families — deserve to expect the harshest of punishment if the PCA company officials are found guilty.

There’s an important lesson here for Suffolk’s many food-processing companies. To be sure, the vast majority of people working in that industry recognize the trust they have been given by the American public, and they hold that trust inviolate. But for those few who would take shortcuts with quality control — or ignore it altogether — in an effort to save money or time, the message is clear: Cavalier attitudes about food safety can be deadly, and the consequences can be grave, even for those who sit in executive offices.