Wrongful Death by Peanuts - FDA Fails Again
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Wrongful Death by Peanuts - FDA Fails Again

Tuesday, February 17, 2009By Richard Alexander

The FDA has finally grabbed the president's attention, but not for anything positive that the agency has done. After at least 6 Americans died from eating peanut products tainted by salmonella, President Obama issued a call for a full investigation of the FDA, and part of his motivation is his desire to protect his own children.“At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter,” the president said. He noted that his daughter Sasha, 7, eats peanut butter regularly.

The president said, “We are going to make sure that we retool the FDA, that it’s operating in a highly professional fashion and, most importantly, that we prevent these things, as opposed to trying to catch them after they’ve already occurred.”

This latest FDA failure occurred when Peanut Corporation of America knowingly shipped contaminated peanut products from its plant in Blakely, Georgia to food processors around the country. The processed peanuts made their way into so many parts of the country that 43 different states have reported cases of salmonella poisoning.

The fact that salmonella has grown in a peanut plant is evidence of major sanitation problems. Salmonella does not naturally grow on plant foods. Instead, it's found in animal products, especially eggs, and occasionally in the human digestive tract.

Deaths from peanut products are inexcusable, and they're really not an accident. Instead, they are predictable consequences of the actions of unethical managers at the peanut plant and of the reduced number of inspections by the FDA. Under the Bush administration, the FDA cut its inspections in half, and many food safety experts predicted problems like this one.

The FDA has failed again, but the agency is hardly the only bad guy in this mess. Through its incompetence, the FDA has acted as enabler for companies such as Peanut Corporation of America, who know that they can get away with many violations. But to concentrate blame on the FDA would be to ignore the biggest culprits.

While the FDA has been incompetent, the officials at Peanut Corporation of America have been criminal in their actions. In their attempts to make a few extra dollars by not properly sanitizing their plant and by shipping contaminated products, they've made every American a potential victim. Anyone, anywhere in the country, could have eaten peanut butter crackers or peanut butter ice cream made with peanut paste or peanut butter from Peanut Corporation of America.

Those officials are truly the criminals. Their actions have directly harmed everyone from their own employees, who are now out of work, to the entire peanut industry, which will certainly lose sales because consumers fear that they may become sick or die if they eat peanut products.

The real tragedy in cases like this is that they show that the FDA's role is nothing more than that of a policeman. As President Obama noted, the FDA's primary job, which it doesn't actually do anyway, is to catch white-collar criminals who endanger American citizens with unsafe foods, drugs, and medical devices.

If those corporate citizens would behave ethically, the FDA could act as a partner with them, helping them to run their operations more safely. Instead, they, and too many other corporate officials have betrayed the public trust. They have exposed their customers to dangers, and put their profits ahead of everything else.

The actions of those managers at Peanut Corporation of America will ultimately wind up costing the company much more than it ever could have saved by not cleaning the plant. The lawsuits have just begun, and many more are certain to follow. Relatives of the victims and everyone who has become ill are completely justified in bringing suit against a company that willfully endangered its customers.

Our best hope for food safety is that President Obama's love for his daughters truly motivates him to improve the FDA and to come down heavily on evildoers such as the Peanut Corporation of America.

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