Monday, February 2, 2009

Bread & Circus, Milk and Peanut

You've probably read about the salmonella outbreak that is stalking the condiments aisle at a grocery store near you.
After months of searching and false alarms, the FDA has finally tracked an ongoing food-poisoning problem to good old homegrown Georgia peanuts. The peanut butter was mixed with sugar, high fructose cornsyrup and various other peanut mummification elements and squirted into peanut-butter and cracker snackpacks worldwide. At my office, an innocent looking bag of Ritz cracker peanutbutter sandwiches sits on a card table while nearby, a letter in a calming tone hangs on the bulletin board. Costco wants their crackers back--but please don't panic.
What happened here?
No one's going to say it, so I'd might as well: I thought we'd gotten past this in America. I thought this sort of greed-driven-corner-cutting-while-the-local-regulators-are-either-paid-off-or-napping-on-the-job was the province of the Middle Kingdom!
Let's have a look: The town of Blakely, GA is the home of a plant belonging to the Peanut Corporation of America. Creative name. They make all sorts of products of varying consistancies out of peanuts, and these peanut products end up in cereals, condiments, snacks, candies, and also, wierdly, doggie biscuits. Conditions at this plant aren't the most hygenic. The ceiling leaks, there's lots of milldew, the building contains lots of convenient entrances for rodents and cockroaches too, judging from their dead carcasses. And there's one sink for all handwashing and mop-washing needs. In other words, it's a pretty cheapass operation. A year ago, peanuts from the plant were rejected by Canada because they had chunks of metal in them. These peanuts got destroyed. If metal bits were too insignificant to warrant internal quality control, what chance does a tiny bacteria have?
The plant did conduct contaminant testing on their product. They found Salmonella. They kept testing the same batch until they got a negative result--and then they shipped it. One wonders if they "read" that final test result with their eyes closed! In fact, the inspection report from the plant reads like a microbial star-chart to the food-poisoning world.
So why did they ship contaminated peanut butter? Exact same reason that Chinese farmers decided to fake out regulators by putting melamine in milk products. Chinese regulations on milk require a certain level of protein content in the milk. This is to prevent manufacturers from watering down milk. Demand was high and money stood to be lost by not keeping up with demand, so dairy plants added a plastic, Melamine, to the milk and watered it down anyway, since Melamine will produce a false positive on certain protein tests.
Where were government regulators while this was going on? Well in Georgia, up until the poop hit the fan, they were noting the lack of hygiene at the Blakely plant and were administering small slaps on the wrist. They were sleeping at the wheel. In China, regulators were probably getting a cut.
Let us compare some numbers here. So far, in the US, there have been 550 illnesses. About a fourth of those are children. The population of the US is 303,824,640. That's 0.000002% of the population of the United States. The Chinese melamine scandal made 300,000 people ill. Mainly infants, children, and the infirm. The population of China is around 1,330,044,544. So, that's around 0.0002% of the population of China affected by this scandal. A couple of orders of magnitude higher than the peanutbutter scandal, but a fairly small percentage of the overall population in both cases.
Yet, it seems like American outrage about the Melamine scandal in comparison to the homegrown peanutbutter scandal is a little bigger than 10e-2. We view the Chinese, with their Communist government drifting towards capitalism with a mixture of suspicion--because they're foreign and commies, condescension because their economy is newer and more immature than our own, nevermind that the United States was in a similar economic position just a century ago, and fear because of the threat China poses to American superpower. We have an inability to empathise with the Chinese towns where mainstreet is held aloft by dairy--leading to an unwillingness to crack down on known health violations, but we can somehow feel for workers in Blakely who put Salmonella peanuts back on the conveyor belt for the same reasons.

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