retail news in context, analysis with attitude

USA Today this morning reports that the peanut butter-related salmonella outbreak has resulted in more than 800 recalls, with more expected to come. More than 500 people reportedly have been sickened because of the outbreak, and as many as eight people may have died from salmonella-related effects.

As detailed by the paper, “The recall, one of the largest ever, started with bulk peanut butter, spread to crackers and cookies and has engulfed products as diverse as kettle corn, pad Thai and trail mix. Whole Foods, for one, has removed more than 80 products from its stores, its website says. Anecdotal evidence indicates that sales of all peanut-related products, even unaffected peanut butters, are slipping, says Robert Brackett, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry trade group.”

Virtually all of the affected products seem to have come from Atlanta-based Peanut Corp. of America, and the government reportedly is investigating the company and could file criminal charges.

The paper reported last week that the FDA probe into the plant has revealed “poor sanitation, conditions that would allow salmonella to spread, a gap in the roof through which salmonella contaminated water or bird feces could fall, the presence of roaches and failure by the firm to check that its peanut-roasting process killed salmonella.”

The recall of products made with peanut butter and peanut paste manufactured in the facility has been expanded to items produced for the past two years, which the government says makes it one of the largest recalls ever.

In related news, Consumers Union yesterday released a statement saying that “President Obama’s call today for a top-to-bottom review of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is good news for consumers,” and it called for regulations that would require that every processing plant in the country be inspected on an annual basis.

"The FDA is supposed to be a watchdog for consumers, and for too long, this agency has been coming up short,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union. “The FDA has been so severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding, and is so poorly equipped to deal with today’s food industry, with its mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients, that it can no longer keep food safe.”

KC's View:
This is what you call a systemic collapse. There is a manufacturer that apparently dropped the ball when it came to food safety procedures, and may well be found to be criminally negligent. (Though we know the senior executives almost certainly will blame workers and underlings. And then, if the story develops the way I expect it to, the senior executives will request a government bailout, which they will use to buy a private jet, pay themselves bonuses and go off on a corporate retreat to some spa/resort. At this point, my cynicism knows almost no bounds…)

At any rate, they’re out of business…it is hard to imagine any circumstances under which they continue to operate.

But the FDA also has to shoulder some culpability here. The Obama administration ought to move quickly to start a top-to-bottom review and restructuring of the nation’s food safety apparatus.

There may be some hope for this, by the way. In his interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, the Washington Post notes this morning, President Obama talked about food safety…and did so from the perspective of a concerned parent.

"I think the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch them, so we're going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations," Obama told Lauer. "At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter," the president said.
“That's what Sasha eats for lunch," Obama said, referring to his 7-year-old daughter. "Probably three times a week. I don't want to worry about whether she's going to get sick as a consequence of eating her lunch."
The Post notes that the FDA “is being run by an acting commissioner; Obama has yet to name a new agency chief, although the White House has said an appointment is likely to come within days.”

Let’s hope it is someone who can bring some out-of-the-box thinking to the notion of food safety. Because the box we’re in now seems to be contaminated with old, bad ideas.