Peanuts, Tobacco and Corporate Greed

By Peter Galuszka

Stewart Parnell had a dilemma. The owner of Lynchburg-based Peanut Corporation of America faced deadlines in shipping peanut butter from his troubled manufacturing plant in Georgia but test results from salmonella, a problem because of unsanitary conditions at the factory, were not back from the lab yet.

His customers included schools, snack firms and dog snack makers. “Shit, just ship it,” Parnell instructed in an email.

While many are concentrate on the failings of government, not that many pay attention to the wrongdoings of private enterprise. The peanut story is a huge lesson for Virginia, based on a 76-count indictment that was handed down in Georgia on Thursday that charged Parnell and three other firm employees with a host of crimes.

Thanks to their quest for the profit, prosecutors charge, hundreds of people were made sick and nine others died in 2009 of a national outbreak of salmonella that was traced back to the peanut factory. One was a 78-year old Korean War vet who was killed after eating peanut butter at his assisted living facility in Minnesota.

The company’s problem trace to its factory in Blakely, Ga., which inspectors found infested with mold and rat feces. Food and Drug Administrators visited the plant a number of times in 2008 and 2009. Aside from the dangerously unsanitary conditions, they found evidence that Peanut Corp. officials had knowingly shipped products infested with salmonella in 2007 and 2008.

Meanwhile, in other headlines, Russia is launching on a plan to increase its citizens’ life expectancies from 66.5 years to 74 years by 2018. Two big reasons for the early death rates are alcohol and tobacco. Regarding the latter (I know from personal experience), Russians can’t live without a cigarette sticking out of their mouths and start at a very early age.

Tobacco companies, including Virginia-Based Philip Morris USA, used to take full advantage of this. True, PM split itself into USA and Philip Morris International a few years back as a sop to health related lawsuits in this country. But its freshly-independent sister firm, based in Switzerland, actively promotes high-nicotine products in Russia and other smoking-prone places such as China, India and Indonesia.

Pointing out the health hazards of tobacco are always problematic in Virginia which has based much of its economic history on tobacco since the 17th century. Philip Morris employs about 6,000 in the state and its parent firm, Altria, contributes generously to the arts and other philanthropy.

But that doesn’t change the deadly nature of its products. In the case of Peanut Corp. of America, its products should be healthy and peanuts also date many centuries in Virginia history. Until greed steps in.

And that takes us back to the essential point. In many cases, the problem is not enough government regulation instead of too much—a common mantra around this blog.

One Response to Peanuts, Tobacco and Corporate Greed

  1. Peter:

    Good post. I am not sure that I see the lack of government involvement in the peanut fiasco. It sounds like some people are going to jail for letting their negligence cause sickness and death.

    However, on the tobacco side, it’s not negligence that makes people sick and die. Tobacco companies ship a dangerous product with known detrimental effects to people’s health as a matter of course. Nobody is being indicted for the sickness and death caused by their products. And their products sicken and kill thousands of times more people than the peanut butter industry. I suppose you could say that people know cigarettes are dangerous while they assume peanut butter is safe. There is some solace there I guess.

    However, a community should have the right to use the tax system to curb bad behavior. In Virginia, as usual, towns and cities have rights while counties do not. This has resulted in very low cigarette taxes in all Virginia counties.

    The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond is, of course, complicit in this. Virginia has the second lowest state cigarette tax in the United States (only Missouri has a lower rate). This both attracts cigarette companies to Richmond and helps spread the misery of tobacco borne disease and death to the residents all across the state.

    Towns and cities in Virginia share some culpability. They are allowed to impose additional taxes without limitation on cigarettes. Some, like the City of Alexandria have imposed a higher tax than the state (Alexandria adds $0.85 per pack). Some have imposed no additional tax.

    Two counties – Arlington and Fairfax – have been “granted the right” to impose additional taxes on cigarettes by the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. However, these two counties are capped in what they can add. They are only allowed to add as much as the state tax. Perhaps needless to say they both impose the maximum additional tax allowed by the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond ($.30 per pack).

    This is yet another disgrace that can be laid directly at the feet of Dillon’s Rule and the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. Why should Arlington and Fairfax Counties have caps imposed on their local cigarette taxes? I can only assume it is the direct intervention of the ruling oligarchy in Richmond who wants to curry favor with Phillip Morris. To which I say, “Hey D-bags – if you want to trade your citizen’s health for the warm glow of Phillip Morris, that’s your choice. But get your filthy, tobacco stained hands off of my county”.

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