Facing the largest recall of food products ever in U.S. history, the food industry is taking a long hard look to correct what went wrong to cause nine deaths and hundreds of sick people stemming from the salmonella poisoning of peanut butter manufactured at Peanut Corp. of America (PCA). According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 200 manufacturers downstream in the food supply chain have had to recall their products, representing more than 2,100 different products in 17 categories.
Some critics blame the FDA for everything from botching inspections to being too slow to react to the outbreak. Still others defend the agency, citing its limited authority prohibited it from taking the actions it would have wanted to take.
The cost to the industry is still to be determined as the story continues to unfold, but it could hit a half a billion dollars, predicts Bill Marler, managing partner of Seattle-based Marler Clark, a firm dedicated to representing victims of food poisoning.
“The illnesses and deaths are tragic, but these are a small part of the overall cost of the litigation,” he reports. “The real cost is damage to the brand and the fact that peanut production is down by about 25 percent.”
When put in perspective, this is a lot of damage from a company producing less than 1 percent of all peanut products used by U.S. food manufacturers. This underscores just how fragile the food safety chain is and how just one weakest link negatively affects food safety throughout the entire chain.
SIFTING THROUGH THE RUINS
PCA is a bad actor and in no way is representative of the entire food industry, says Craig Henry, PhD, senior vice president and COO of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in Washington.
Even with food safety regulations in place, something went terribly wrong. “From the moment a company decides to be involved in the food business, they have taken on a very big responsibility,” reminds Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety programs for Arlington, VA-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI).
“With this case we have seen the potential to reach thousands of people from a single food source. But unsafe food is not the norm. When you think of the volume of food produced in this country, consumed day in and day out, a mind-boggling amount of food is safe food.”
So what went wrong and how can the industry prevent something similar from ever happening again?
Marler says PCA was clearly out of control. “This company’s facilities were run with little interest in food safety and potential for food contamination. Judging from the documents released at the congressional hearing, production was more important to them than food safety.”
Audits at PCA’s Blakely, GA, facility completed in 2008 by the Georgia Department of Health or any other third-party auditors clearly missed warnings that were there to be seen, reports Marler, who is representing 65 of the over 600 people affected by the PCA outbreak. The FDA inspection done this January reported structural and long-standing problems at the Blakely plant.
PCA’s Texas facility had been operating for years under the radar, having never even been registered or inspected by any agency. Violations there were discovered to be long-standing and included mold growth on walls, interior water damage from the roof and access points for birds and rats.
Marler brought lawsuits against PCA and its president, Stewart Parnell, as well as Kellogg in Georgia’s federal court. He will file additional lawsuits against other manufacturers like King Nut and others who used PCA products to make consumer goods, aiming to discover where the breakdowns were in the production facilities, the chain of distribution and the auditing process.
The law views manufacturers of a food product to include growers, processors, re-manufacturers or private label companies offering a finished product they have not themselves manufactured—like King Nut.