Michael Parnell’s defense attorney is painting his client as a “little guy” who “lost it all.” I would dare Parnell and his defense team, and the other convicted former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives, to stand before the families of the nine people who died as a result of their actions and try to convince them that he is the one who “lost it all.” Michael Parnell’s defense attorney is also painting his client as a “family man” who has been married for 31 years and has two sons, including one who has special needs. While I am aware of the stress that this criminal trial and sentencing must place on his family, I wonder: Would Michael’s brother, former PCA CEO Stewart Parnell, have served his “Clean em’ all up and ship them” peanut products to his own family? Thousands of parents across this nation cannot ignore the empty seat at their family table. Foodborne illnesses are regarded as infectious diseases which are, by and large, preventable. CDC estimates of the millions of foodborne illnesses and thousands of deaths in this country each year are staggering. Many families of the victims from the 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak tied to PCA have spent the past few years testifying before legislators for stronger food safety policies and working to prevent such events from ever happening to other families. Since his conviction, Stewart Parnell has also spent many long hours working – on his tennis swing at a country club in Virginia. Unlike Stewart Parnell and PCA, the vast majority of companies in the food industry strive to make food safety a priority each and every day. I work with some companies that invest in proactive measures to train employees and even indoctrinate their suppliers and distributors around their mission of food safety.
But just as bacteria are always present in the foods we eat, outbreaks do happen. After many such outbreaks, we can find example after example of corporations and executives who see the event as a wakeup call and react in ways to prevent such events from ever happening again.
One such example can be seen in California where, as a result of the 2006 E. coli outbreak tied to spinach which sickened more than 200 people in 26 states and killed three, the leafy green produce industry took responsibility for the event, invested in new training and protocols, and worked together in alliances to strengthen the level of safety of their products to ensure that it never happens again.
In 2007, following the tragic E. coli outbreak, California farmers made an unprecedented commitment to protect public health through the creation of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA). The program’s goal is to assure safety and confidence in California-grown lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. Since then, they have partnered with a sister program in Arizona to include approximately 90 percent of the leafy greens grown in the U.S.
LGMA collaborated with STOP Foodborne Illness, a non-profit health organization dedicated to the prevention of foodborne illness, to produce a video training tool called “The WHY behind Food Safety” as part of their training program. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor called this new video project a great example of the “spirit of partnership which characterizes today’s food safety landscape.”
Aimed at farm workers, this industry video features two young women who have been sickened in past foodborne illness outbreaks. The victims explain, in vivid detail, about their illnesses to illustrate why it is so important for workers on leafy green farms to follow proper food safety practices. The video stresses not only what farms should be doing, but why.
An important lesson out of this PCA outbreak and criminal trial is that our food industry includes only a very small percentage of companies whose low level of ethics and poor track record of food safety is as egregious as this one. Perhaps the upcoming sentencing will serve as a warning to them.
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