The man who supposedly apologized to the relatives of some of the
nine victims of his tainted peanuts seemed at stark odds with the
executive who'd fired off an email to a manager alerting him to
salmonella contamination, "Just ship it."
Unmoved, Federal Judge W. Louis Sands, a Clinton appointee, sentenced Stewart Parnell
to 28 years in prison for knowingly sending out tainted food products,
obstructing the investigation and falsifying evidence (conspiracy). In
other words, this sentencing, which was 775 fewer years than the judge
who'd found him guilty wanted, was nonetheless the toughest one ever
handed down to a major executive in a food borne illness and death case.
Stewart's poison would kill at least nine people, sicken 714 others
(half of them children), which doesn't include how many pets were killed
or sickened, across 46 states. His peanut butter paste was sold by his
brother to Kellogg's, which used it in snack crackers and his product
even found its way on airplanes, meaning his salmonella could've been
exported to countless other countries, which could've theoretically
produced a pandemic. Indeed, when the Center for Disease Control in
Atlanta has to calculate the human carnage of your greed, you know
you've taken a wrong turn around the bend.
What's getting less press is his former QA manager, Mary Wilkerson, who
got a surprisingly light sentence of just five years for obstruction.
Let's focus on that for a minute, shall we?
As some of you may recall from my prior comments and posts from time to
time, just prior to and after 9/11 I used to be a QC inspector for an
automotive/aerospace/aeronautics firm. We made silicon rubber gaskets,
seals, hoses and all kinds of applications for silicon rubber. My job as
the only non-dedicated QC inspector in the lab was to do all the
day-to-day inspections that didn't require specialized and certified
expertise (such as GE's aircraft engine parts, which required DSQR
certification and a week's worth of classes).
This required I
know the rudiments of good quality control, which is a whole 'nuther
animal from Quality Assurance (but more on that later). Part of a good
skill set from a QC inspector is knowing when to ignore executive
management when they pressure you to rubber stamp CoCs (Certificates of
Compliance). This usually comes toward the end of the month (the last
Friday). The sooner we ship something out, the sooner they can invoice
it. The sooner they invoice it, the sooner they can grab their
commissions and bonuses.
Each CoC is supposed to be validated
by the inspector's name or initials as well as their inspector number.
Assuming the Peanut Corporation of America was ISO-certified, this
would've been mandated. No one likes to fall on their own sword but this
is nonetheless an unspoken rule in quality control/assurance.
Sometimes, when you're given an order by a President and CEO of a
corporation that's a leader in the field, you have to defy orders when
human lives are at stake.
Now, I'm going to get a bit into
the difference between QA and QC. QC is the art of saying, "You didn't
do this right." QA is the art of saying, "You're not doing this right."
The difference is something called SPC, or Statistical Process Control.
I'm not going to bore you with the science and mathematics involved in
SPC but let's just say QA is a much safer and cost-effective way to
inspect your product because it requires you remove at least one person
in your lab and put them on the production line.
purely cost-effective standpoint, QA makes sense because if the
inspector, during a spot inspection, finds a grievous flaw in the
process, s/he has the power to stop the presses. Manpower hours and the
cost of raw materials is saved and the inspector doesn't sit on their
ass in the lab waiting for the entire order to be filled.
with both QA and QC, at times scientific tests and lab results are
crucial to making a determination if a product is fit to be shipped.
What Mary Wilkerson did probably was either fudge, falsify, switch out
or outright bury a lab result that one of her subordinates would've
needed to make a wise and informed decision.
several possible reasons why she would've done this. She could've acted
to protect her boss or herself or both. Either way the last thing either
she or Parnell wanted was for the material to get RMA'd back then have
to explain at an executive MRB (Material Review Board) why the initials
and inspector number of one of her subordinates got sent out with her
blessings along with a ton of tainted food. The MRB is often months
after the fact and the fastest way to lose one's job when asked how this
could've happened is to point to the CEO and say, "Ask that asshole."
See how long that CEO and the shareholders will let you stick around after that.
Now, I could make a case as to how this got by Kellogg's and the other
food companies that had bought Parnell's poisoned product but that'll be
a post for another day. (I will
say, however, that every
ISO-certified company is mandated to have incoming QC inspectors whose
job it is to test the standards and viability of any product that comes
through their shipping bay. Why this was never questioned is a mystery).
Parnell made his standpoint clear when he sent that terse email to his
manager who'd voiced concerns about potential salmonella contamination.
When he said, "Just ship it," he'd encapsulated a universe of meaning
within those three little words and ten letters. "...or you're fired."
It's the kind of unambiguous directive from on high that every QC person
understands and dreads, especially when their name and number goes on
the bottom of that cert.
And the fact that PCA had a QA setup
makes the sanitary conditions of the plants especially unforgivable. A
good QA manager or inspector should be almost preternaturally aware of
their work environment, especially in plants where food is produced
and/or processed and cleanliness is paramount. Inspectors found evidence
of vermin, roaches, bird droppings, mold and a leaky ceiling. In other
words, Parnell's plants were the perfect breeding ground for the
vigorous cultivation of salmonella.
That's another fact I'd
like to address: From having worked in manufacturing plants much of my
life, those of you who also have know that regulatory agencies such as
OSHA, FDA, Board of Health etc always, for some perverse reason,
announce their inspections ahead of time. It always struck me like
telling a batter what pitch you're about to throw him and how fast it'll
be. But in advance of such visits, nervous managers always hand out the
goggles and any other form of PPE, appropriate and mandatory signage
and anything else that'll make the inspector happy.
getting no indication of that. Even if only to pass a health inspection,
you'd think PCA would've cleaned the place but they didn't think that
was important. Maybe Parnell had thought hiring a roofer for a day or
two to fix a leaky roof or devoting a person to do janitor duty (I get
the impression they didn't have a janitor, since they were a company
employing just 90 people) was a drain on the bottom line.
the end, Mary Wilkerson set herself the impossible task of trying to
shield herself and/or her boss from scrutiny and prosecution. The
product was tainted with salmonella. At that point, when your lab
results confirm that, the QA game gets real simple, much simpler than
mine ever was. Whereas we had the option of scrapping or reworking a
certain defective product or arriving at some sort of other corrective
action, their choices were simpler: Throw out the batch and clean the
shit up off the floor that had caused it. But she did not think to do
this. If she had fallen on her sword or at least made some attempt to
report Parnell to the proper agencies, nine people wouldn't be rotting
in their coffins right now.
But corporate profits will always win out over human lives.
We need to fund the programs that are geared toward strengthening food
regulatory agencies. We need to invest the FDA and the USDA with recall
powers instead of making recalls a purely voluntary function.