An interesting article in the January Oregonian talked about a 3?year?old boy who was poisoned by eating tainted peanut butter crackers. Peter Hurly, the father of the boy, is a Portland policeman. His son fell severely ill for 11 days after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter crackers. The peanut butter crackers were packed by a company called Peanut Corp. Congressional hearings recently revealed that the plant’s machinery was filthy and not adequately inspected. In fact, the owner had complained that conducting salmonella tests were costing him money. It turns out he not only wasn’t testing his food products, he was ordering contaminated food shipped out to customers. In the words of the boy’s father, “What he did was criminally negligent behavior, it was willful neglect and it just horrified me”. As a consequence of his son’s poisoning, the father decided to take his message to congress. He spoke with Representative Gregg Walden of Oregon. Walden is the ranking republican on the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations that looked into Peanut Corp. It turns out that more than 700 people were poisoned by food made with Peanut Corp products and nine of the people died, including one in the State of Idaho. Although Peter Hurly’s son survived, the experience left him very surprised at the lack of inspection occurring at companies that make our food. The congressional hearings revealed a food safety network somewhat in shambles. There are too few inspectors and too few penalties for food companies to worry about getting caught.
After speaking up about the problem, Officer Hurly and his son were invited with a small group of victims to visit the White House. At the White House they met with one of President Obama’s policy advisors. The result of Officer Hurly’s action was a food safety bill that has now passed the house and is awaiting approval in the senate. The legislation would overhaul a food safety system that dates back to 1906. It would also create rules focused on prevention rather than penalties after the fact.
Officer Hurly was quoted as saying, “I don’t like heavy government regulations but there is a need.” This case is just another example of companies valuing profit more than the safety of their customers. Most people buying food at the grocery store assume it must be government-inspected and safe to eat. Unfortunately that is not always the case. More inspectors, bigger penalties and rules to prevent this happening again benefit us all. But government regulations alone are not enough. People eating tainted food products need to be able to use the justice system to hold companies accountable for illnesses or deaths caused by their products. Not only does this right make the company pay for the damage they caused, it also serves as an effective tool to force the company to change their business practices. Unfortunately, many companies want to pass laws to restrict or limit the rights of victims to sue. They spend millions of dollars in media campaigns such as the recent saturation of the airwaves by ads from the US Chamber of Commerce. If they succeed, not only do victims lose, an incentive to keep products safe is lost too.