Peanut catastrophe shows Georgia must be aggressive in protecting consumers from food contamination|
J. Randolph Evans
Georgia Online News Service
Having traveled through four states and Washington, D.C., it is clear that Georgia's reputation continues to suffer horribly and confidence in Georgia products continues to plummet.
Indeed, Georgia has become the butt of jokes when it comes to peanuts, and with the coming weeks it will only get worse. Yet, Georgia leaders seem content to watch as a cornerstone of the Georgia economy suffers the same fate as eight people who consumed Georgia's peanut butter.
Amidst their ambivalence, there will be a series of Congressional hearings at which various government officials will explain how a company could ship a salmonella-contaminated product 12 times without detection by the department run by Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. As the testimony unfolds, the stories will be horrendous. First, the victims' families will testify. It will be heartbreaking - like the story of Shirley Mae Almer. Her son summed it up this way: "Cancer couldn't claim her, but peanut butter did." There will be story after story.
Then, witness after witness will appear on national television to describe what they saw. Already, former employees are talking about rats, mice, roaches and common filth at the processing plant in Blakely. One employee said, "I never ate the peanut butter, and I wouldn't allow my kids to eat it." As another former employee said: "I'm not surprised this happened. I just hate that people died."
Simultaneously, with each passing day, more peanut products will be recalled. Already, there have been more than 100 recalls covering more than 800 products. Just this week, 30 new products were added, including certain Keebler soft-batch chocolate chip and oatmeal-raisin products. Each day the news will get worse.
And then, the criminal investigations will start. Specifically, the Department of Justice has commenced an investigation into the incident that killed eight people. Gov. Sonny Perdue made clear his support for accountability for those responsible. He said, "When we have people who don't take that responsibility seriously, when we have people who violate that sacred chain of command in food safety, then something must be done." This investigation must go wherever it leads since, as the governor put it, "a criminal action that will not be tolerated, cannot be tolerated, because we've got to have trust in the food supply chain."
As grand juries are empanelled, as witnesses testify, as plea bargains occur, the stories about the problems in Georgia will only grow worse.
Not surprisingly, the peanut-processing plant will cite the agriculture commissioner's own reports as evidence of compliance with the standards in Georgia. In the end, the commissioner's own handling of this incident will be put on trial – and, given the evidence of the condition of the plant, the 12 positive tests for salmonella contamination, and the eight deaths that resulted, the end will not be good for Georgia.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Georgia has been involved in such controversy. In 2007, Georgia was the source of salmonella-contaminated peanut butter that made hundreds of Americans sick.
Of course, this is not a case where the commissioner of agriculture did not have enough resources to visit the plant or detect the problem. Indeed, the commissioner’s inspectors visited the plant six times and cited it for various violations, including grease and food buildup and gaps in doors permitting rodents to enter. Photographs of the black buildup were included in the file. But nothing more was done.
Instead, after reported salmonella cases, it was officials in Minnesota and Connecticut who detected and traced the problem to the peanut-processing plant in Georgia. When checked, the Blakely company's own records indicated that it found salmonella on 12 occasions in the past two years. With no oversight by the commissioner of agriculture, the company worked around the tests showing salmonella and shipped the processed product. It was just a matter of time before the salmonella made its way to the food supply and sickened or killed consumers around America.
Interestingly, the commissioner of agriculture has responded with a new division of inspectors. Effectively, the commissioner proposes more of the same that missed the problem before. If the matter were not so serious, voters could decide whether new titles for old people are enough to solve the problem. But it is serious. People die.
The fact is that there is no way to rebuild the confidence of consumers without a change at the top. As the Congressional hearings, recalls, and criminal investigations go on, the pressure will continue to mount.
Georgia's leaders will either be George Bush after Katrina, or true leaders focused on helping Georgia get out of this mess. If he truly loves Georgia, Commissioner Tommy Irvin should do the right thing for Georgia and make the change at the top by resigning.
J. Randolph Evans is a long-time Republican strategist and the chair of the Financial Institutions practice at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. [full bio]