From late 2008 to early 2009, more than 700 people in 46 states were sickened by the same foodborne illness, a monolithic outbreak that originated at a filthy, germ-ridden processing plant in rural Georgia. More than half the affected people were children. Nine people died.
The outbreak was caused by salmonella, a bacteria that can lead to food poisoning. Symptoms of salmonella infection include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, headache, and chills. It can be deadly to children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
The culprit was tainted peanut butter, peanut paste, and peanut meal produced by the Peanut Corporation of America, or PCA. PCA’s Blakely, Georgia, manufacturing facility, the source of the outbreak, was notorious for its squalid conditions and slipshod food-safety standards. One federal inspector called the plant a ticking time bomb.
Salmonella in peanut butter triggered the most sweeping food recall in U.S. history, affecting more than 350 companies and nearly 4,000 different products manufactured with PCA ingredients. It also devastated peanut farmers, thanks to widespread consumer fear that any peanut product could be affected. Losses to the U.S. peanut industry topped more than $1 billion.
In a groundbreaking verdict in 2014, a Georgia jury convicted two PCA executives of federal fraud and conspiracy charges, the first felony conviction of a company executive in a food-safety case. Stewart Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, were charged with 76 federal counts. The jury concluded the two men knowingly allowed products contaminated with salmonella to enter the U.S. food system.
In the fall of 2015, Stewart and Michael Parnell were sentenced to 28 and 20 years, respectively. Today, each is serving his sentence in a federal prison.
I worked at the Co-op during that strange, surreal period between 2008-2009, when our nation’s frayed food-safety net came to light. Unconscionable men produced unsafe products in a run-down facility, and it hurt a lot of people. Virtually every day, the FDA expanded the recall. It affected communities all over the Upper Valley, just as it affected communities across the country. It felt like it would never end.
During the recall, co-ops nationwide were staffed by unsung heroes. Co-ops worked together to build innovative communication networks to help each other track the recalls, pull product from the shelves, notify the public, and contact members. At our co-op, employees called every member who purchased a recalled item. Over several weeks, staff made thousands of calls to members. For some of my colleagues, contacting members is all they did, day after day.
Personal notification of product recalls is an important and rarely touted co-op member benefit. Arguably it’s the one member benefit with a direct correlation to consumer safety.
Recalls are often innocuous, such as when a company recalls a product because the packaging doesn’t meet quality standards. But sometimes the recall can genuinely be a matter of life and death, like when a product is contaminated by a dangerous bacteria or contains an undeclared allergen.
The bottom line? Being a co-op member can help protect your health. If you purchase a product using your member number, your co-op can contact you if the product is recalled.
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