Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Inbox Goes Nuts

Ever since the peanut butter-salmonella scandal broke, I have been waiting for someone from the Peanut Corp. of America to step forward and 1) take the blame and 2) provide a resolution that the media can latch onto and provide an opportunity for forgiveness (and eventually, forgetfulness).

Apparently, this family-owned business is getting some conflicting legal advice, or just isn't getting good advice at all. Their relative inaction has probably doomed their company and is putting one of Georgia's largest agricultural industries at risk. The deaths and illnesses attributed to the contaminated peanut butter are tragic, but there are some concrete steps the company and industry need to take in order to help these families recover and the public to regain confidence in peanut butter.

The story so far: poor cleaning and inspection practices at a plant in South Georgia allowed salmonella to contaminate peanut butter that was used in more than 1,800 products nationwide. The FDA has said that PCA knowingly shipped peanut butter that was contaminated. Today, the headquarters of the company in Virginia was raided, and another plant in Texas was shut down. To date, 8 deaths and at least 550 cases of illness have been linked to contaminated peanut butter.

In looking at PCA's website, it is apparent that they are trying to get their message out. But their web page is archaic, with no background on the company or multi-media elements. The news page is simply a series of statements, etc. And the statements are too long and not attributed to an individual. There appears to be no proactive outreach. In short, this is crisis response circa 1988, and not surprisingly, the company's message is not getting through. If comments from PCA are used in any of the escalating and increasingly shrill coverage, they are buried.

This is not a time to sit back and issue statements about the past. The peanut industry needs to take dramatic action to show it has a commitment to a safe product and demonstrate concern for those impacted before an entire product's reputation is ruined.

Taking a page from Tylenol, it would behoove the industry to do the following: immediately close all PCA plants until they are inspected and certified as safe. Recall all peanut butter products aside from jars of peanut butter. Pay for healthcare for all those affected. Adapt safety standards and develop an icon that highlights that peanut butter used in a product passed a "quality test" of some sort. Proactively encourage and welcome government inspectors at all peanut butter factories on a weekly basis, and support legislation for stronger inspections. And when things have calmed down, implement an aggressive advertising and multi-media campaign to educate consumers about the facts around the issue and to convince them that peanut butter is safe once again.

Georgia grows nearly half of the nation's peanut crop. I would imagine that Georgia's peanut industry, major candy and snack food organizations, along with JIF and everyone else are ready for a resolution to this story (recognizing that part of this will be driven by various federal and state investigations).

At this point, it is probably too late to save PCA. Who, after all, will be buying from them in the future? But for the good of those who enjoy peanut butter, the entire industry and our state, let's hope peanut plants are cleaned up and the narrative begins to change -- and quickly.


Brian said...

These guys just keep digging the hole deeper....

Brian said...

Latest episode of "As the Georgia Peanut Industry Turns" can be found here: