Sunday, April 11, 2010

Corporate Culpability

What do mining companies, car manufacturers and the food industry have in common?

When a coal mining company skimps on safety, miners die.

When a car manufacturer closes its eyes to reports of mechanical problems, motorists die.

When a food company knowingly ships contaminated food, consumers become ill; millions of dollars worth of at-risk food must be recalled and destroyed. And people sometimes die.

The news this past week was filled with reports of the unsuccessful attempts to rescue coal miners that were trapped deep in a West Virginia mine, owned and operated by Massey Energy. Twenty-nine people died following an explosion in the Upper Big Creek mine – a mine that has been cited repeatedly by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for safety violations, according to an article in the New York Times.

The spotlight also has been on Toyota in recent months, as more information has become public over the automobile manufacturer's foot-dragging in response to reports on sudden and unexplained acceleration of several different models of Toyota and Lexus vehicles. No one knows for certain how many people have been killed or injured as a result of the uncontrolled acceleration incidents.

And then there's food.

In June 2006, Cadbury recalled several of its UK-made chocolate products due to possible Salmonella contamination. The Company advised the UK Food Standards Agency that it had detected Salmonella in products from its Herefordshire production plant in January 2006, but continued manufacturing and shipping chocolate products anyway. The contaminated chocolate was responsible for an outbreak of Salmonella Montevideo that sickened 45 people – more than half of them under the age of four.

Melamine was in the news – and in powdered milk from China – in 2008. Sanlu Dairy, which was 43% owned by Fonterra Dairy Cooperative of New Zealand, knowingly sold powdered baby formula that was adulterated with melamine. Fonterra was complicit in suppressing knowledge of the adulteration for several months, as was the government of the People's Republic of China. Six babies died and more than 300,000 infants suffered from kidney stones as a result of corporate actions and government inaction.

Also in 2008, Peanut Corporation of America knowingly supplied Salmonella Typhimurium-contaminated peanut butter and peanut paste to its customers on several separate occasions. Companies around the world recalled hundreds of tons of peanut-containing ready-to-eat foods. The contaminated products sickened 714 people in the United States alone. Nine died.

Fortunately, actions such as these are the exception. Most companies act responsibly. Nevertheless, the occasional food processor chooses to flirt with foodborne disaster rather than to "eat" the cost of destroying contaminated products. The US Corporate Hall of Shame has added a few new members in the last year:

How many more companies around the world are playing Russian Roulette with public health and safety?

Food Processors Take Note: It is NEVER acceptable to knowingly sell contaminated food.

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