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Crawford: Behold these victims of the free market

POSTED: February 19, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Shirley Almer, an elderly Minnesota woman, had managed to live through lung cancer and a brain tumor before she died on Dec. 21. Cause of death: salmonella poisoning linked to food products from a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely.

Clifford Tousignant made it through the Korean War, where he earned three Purple Hearts, and was still enjoying the company of his children and grandchildren before he died Jan. 12 in a Minnesota nursing home. Cause of death: salmonella poisoning linked to food products from the Peanut Corporation plant in Blakely.

Nellie Napier, an Ohio woman who raised six children on her own and had recently celebrated her 80th birthday, didn't live to see her 81st. Cause of death: salmonella species bacteria linked to food products from the Peanut Corporation plant in Blakely.

They are among the nine people so far whose deaths have been connected to tainted peanut products made at that Blakely facility, not to mention the hundreds who have survived but are trying to overcome the effects of salmonella poisoning.

Their deaths are tragedies that could have and should have been avoided, but they point to a even larger flaw in our current system of governance: The belief among many of our political leaders that government regulations are always a bad thing and must be eliminated because they get in the way of free market forces.

This belief is contained in Ronald Reagan's famous remark that "government isn't the solution, government is the problem." You hear it often from leaders in the Georgia General Assembly, who insist that all government regulations are bad and must be eliminated so that the free market can work its magic for Georgia's citizens.

There appear to have been very few regulations that were enforced by government inspectors on Peanut Corporation of America. The company's CEO, Stewart Parnell, evidently had the ability to do whatever he wanted to under our free market system. A congressional committee that finally took a hard look at Parnell's operations released copies of some very interesting corporate communications.

In one e-mail, plant manager Sammy Lightsey told Parnell about positive salmonella tests that had come back on food products from the Blakely facility. Parnell gave instructions to "turn them loose" anyway.

Parnell wrote an e-mail to company employees on Jan 12 that stated, "we have never found any salmonella at all. No salmonella has been found anywhere in our products or in our plants."
Parnell sent an e-mail to the Food and Drug Administration telling federal officials that the managers at his company "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

Parnell issued orders that products tainted with salmonella were still to be shipped out to customers, and he complained that tests discovering the contaminated food were "costing us huge $$$$$."

When he appeared before that congressional committee last week, Parnell was asked by Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon: "In this container, are products that have your ingredients in them. Some of which are on the recall list, some of which are probably contaminated. It seems like from what we've read you were willing to send out that peanut base that went into these ingredients.

"I just wonder, would either of you be willing to take the lid off and eat any of these products now? Like the people on the panel ahead of you, their relatives, their loved ones did?" Parnell refused to answer the question.

Peanut Corporation of America has now filed for bankruptcy and likely won't make or ship any more batches of contaminated peanut products.

There might not have been any deaths caused by the company if state and federal inspectors had enforced food safety regulations. Even so, there are still political leaders who argue that government regulations are bad because they get in the way of an effectively functioning free market.

The wave of deaths and illnesses traced to contaminated food products from the Blakely peanut plant should, but probably won't, put an end to that nonsense. There are times when consumers need strong oversight and regulation from the government so that they at least know the food they eat won't kill them.

Just ask the surviving relatives of Shirley Almer, Clifford Tousignant and Nellie Napier.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers politics and government in Georgia.



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