Peanut CEO is a serial killer

by Jim Longworth

No doubt about it, there are advantages to hosting a weekly television program and writing a weekly newspaper column. But the primary perk isn’t celebrity, so much as it is familiarity. I find that perfect strangers will walk up to me, and offer their thoughts about a wide range of issues. Sometimes, they even share their innermost feelings. Last week, one such gentleman approached me to say that he had just been laid off from a local machinery business where he had served as their longtime quality control officer. The reason for the layoff startled me. “They said they couldn’t afford quality control anymore”, the man revealed. Coincidentally that same day, hundreds of miles away, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) filed for bankruptcy following a massive recall, which had been prompted by a lack of quality control. Clearly one could argue that the economic downturn George Bush left us has triggered the loss of quality control jobs. And, you could even argue that Bush’s arrogant disregard for (and under funding of) the FDA sent a clear message to some industry leaders that quality and safety weren’t a top priority for the Feds. But the sins of PCA’s CEO Stewart Parnell and his managers transcend a bad economy, or a toothless FDA. Their crimes were borne of greed and expediency without regard to the consequences on public health. Earlier this year an outbreak of salmonella poisoning at a nursing home in Minnesota triggered an investigation that led straight to King Nut peanut butter, one of PCA’s end products. What the nursing home administrator couldn’t have known at the time, however, is that the tainted food had been shipped not by accident, but on purpose. Weeks earlier a testing facility had already informed Parnell that his product was contaminated with salmonella. But rather than halting production or destroying the affected food, Stewart shopped around for another lab that would give his peanut butter a clean bill of health. As soon as he found one that would, Parnell ordered his manager at the Blakely Georgia plant to start shipping the contaminated product immediately, so that the company could invoice its customers. PCA’s tainted products were used in a number of peanut butter brands which were shipped to schools, nursing facilities, and some stores. To date, over 600 people have become ill from Parnell’s salmonella, and nine of them have died, including one victim here in North Carolina. The FDA has subsequently discovered the presence of roaches, mold and leaky roofs at PCA’s Georgia plant, and their investigation continues, with no help from Parnell, I might add. That snake appeared before a Congressional panel last week, andrefused to testify by invoking his fifth amendment rights. Anyonefamiliar with salmonella poisoning knows how painful and lifethreatening it can be. It causes abdominal cramping, severe diarrheaand fever, and can last up to seven days. Those most at risk of deathfrom the illness are infants, the elderly, and the infirmed. It’s nosurprise, then, that the lawsuits against PCA have already started tomount, including one filed by a couple in Vermont, and another on behalf of a 72 year old woman in Minneapolis who died as a result of the contaminated peanut butter. Meanwhile,the UDSA banned PCA from doing business with the government, andSecretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack removed Parnell from the USDA’sPeanut Standards Board. Talking about closing the barn door after thehorses got loose. Anyway, such ceremonial slaps on the wristare too little too late, especially now that PCA has shut its doors. Inaddition to civil suits and government admonishments, Parnell may alsoface the wrath of the FBI. That’s because federal law forbids producingor shipping foods under conditions that make it harmful to consumerhealth. If ever that law applied to anyone, it applies to Parnell. Andnot to minimize the personal suffering wrought by PCA, but our alreadyfragile retail economy suffered a blow of its own due to the negativepublicity. Reputable brands like Peter Pan, Skippy and Jiff, which hadnothing to do with PCA, saw their market shares fall drastically in theaftermath of the recall. Some brands’ business were off by as much as50 percent, and that is unprecedented. Even the Tylenol scareof 1982 didn’t stop consumers from purchasing analgesics. But Parnellhas single handedly disrupted commerce for the entire peanut butterindustry. As such, I would expect the affected companies tosue PCA for damages. My heart goes out to the families of those wholost their lives as a result of Parnell’s avarice, and he should paythe ultimate price for his role in their deaths. The United StatesAttorney should seek the death penalty for PCA’s CEO, and substantialprison time for any manager who knowingly shipped the tainted productto unsuspecting customers. Nine people have died, and in my book, thatmakes Stewart Parnell a serial killer. But no matter thepunishment and final resolution, there will always remain an ironictwist to this sick saga. Parnell was poisoned by greed.

So were his victims.

JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15).