History was made last month at the C. B. King Federal Courthouse in downtown Albany. Federal Judge Louis Sands had before him a defendant named Stewart Parnell, who was once the president of a now-defunct food processing company called Peanut Corporation of America.
In 2008 and 2009, PCA shipped peanut products from its processing plant in Blakely to food companies around the country for use in making their own products.
That peanut butter and peanut paste was so badly contaminated with pathogens that it caused an outbreak of more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning in 46 states, at least nine people dying as a result.
At Parnell’s trial, evidence showed that he and PCA employees fabricated documents that stated the food they were shipping was free of pathogens, when in fact there had been no testing or the tests had revealed the presence of pathogens.
When a PCA employee inquired about a food shipment that was being delayed while the Blakely plant awaited lab results on the food’s purity, Parnell said in an email: “Just ship it. I cannot afford to (lose) another customer.”
Judge Sands considered all this evidence and brought the hammer down. He sentenced Parnell to 28 years in federal prison, which prosecutors said was the longest sentence ever handed down in a food safety case.
“We expect, and rightfully so, for food suppliers to follow the rules and regulations, and to never sacrifice public safety for profits,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Moore. “In this case, these defendants were willing to put tainted food onto the shelves of stores across the country.”
A couple of years after that contaminated food was shipped from the PCA plant in Blakely, there was a massive fish kill in the Ogeechee River that flows through a portion of Southeast Georgia.
An estimated 38,000 fish were killed along a stretch of the Ogeechee, which officials said was the largest recorded kill in the state’s history. Advisories were issued for area residents not to wade in the river or eat any fish they caught there.
Environmental inspectors later determined that the “kill zone” was directly downstream from the discharge pipe of a textile manufacturing plant in Screven County operated by King America Finishing, which treated fabrics with chemicals to make them fire-retardant. King America had been discharging chemicals into the Ogeechee for several years without a permit, inspectors learned. The company later agreed to pay $2.5 million to the Ogeechee Riverkeeper environmental group and another $1.3 million to the state Environmental Protection Division to get a waste discharge permit.
I think of these incidents whenever I hear my Libertarian friends or politicians complain about “big government” and all of its “burdensome” regulations that they contend serve no purpose other than to hurt businesses.
In fact, the PCA and Ogeechee tragedies show there is a legitimate and necessary role for government to play when it comes to making sure we have clean water to drink and food that won’t poison us when we eat it.
Without these “burdensome” regulations, food companies could continue to process tainted substances in filthy conditions and distribute them to consumers, causing even more people to get sick or die. Without water quality regulations required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, manufacturers could dump toxic chemicals into our rivers and make the water unsafe for drinking, swimming or fishing.
The Ogeechee fish kill happened just four years ago, and the damage it caused should be fresh in everyone’s memory. You will still hear legislators and elected officials, however, complain bitterly about government efforts to curtail water pollution. One of them is Attorney General Sam Olens, who recently asked a federal court to issue a nationwide order that would prohibit the EPA from enforcing its latest rules on water quality — in effect, shutting down the agency’s attempts to ensure clean water.
The simple fact is that most people can’t afford to hire their own chemist or lab tech to test the purity of all the water they drink or the food they eat.
We have to rely on the government to monitor these situations and try to maintain a minimum level of purity and safety. That’s a burden I’m happy to bear.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.