There was a lot of focus in the news yesterday about this peanut contamination being an “FDA problem”, with President Obama pointing at a lack of proper inspection and oversight.
I'd tend to view this as a business ethics problem. Companies, manufacturers, and managers need ethics and a sense of purpose to society. The government can't inspect every business (or hospital) 100% of the time. Business can't just be about maximizing short-term profits (Principle 1 of the Toyota Way reads: “Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.”
Short-term thinking is at the root of many of our problems in business and government.
So what happened with the “Peanut Corporation of America”? I know I shouldn't call people “idiots” (or a company)… the whole “respect for people” thing, but I'm going to anyway. What's wrong with the idiots who run this peanut company?
Officials said the Peanut Corp. of America plant had shipped products that the company's own initial tests found to be positive for salmonella. They retested and got a negative reading.
So you have a product that you KNOW is contaminated and you ship it anyway? Hello, jail time anybody?
The company kept testing until they got the result they wanted — negative:
“The inspection revealed that the firm's internal testing program identified salmonella,” said Michael Rogers, director of FDA's division of field investigations. “In some cases … a subsequent lab was used that reached a negative conclusion.” Peanut Corp. then shipped the products.
So did they find an incompetent lab or did they pay them off to get the negative test?
“Inspections are worthless if companies can test and retest until they receive the results they want,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich, who heads a congressional panel conducting its own inquiry. He's introduced legislation to end such “lab shopping” and to require companies to submit all test results to the FDA. Officials said Peanut Corp. did not initially disclose the test results that found salmonella.
Rep. Stupak wants new legislation. Maybe this is already against the law, according to the NY Times article:
It is illegal for a company to continue testing a product until it gets a clean test, said Michael Taylor, a food safety expert at George Washington University.
So why would managers make a decision like this? Was their bonus on the line? Were they under the pressure of financial or “pay for performance” incentives to the point where they couldn't bear to make the right decision (not shipping)? Maybe their family's house was on the line if they didn't make the numbers and they lost their job? That's reckless speculation on my part… but I could see that scenario being part of what happened. I wonder if we'll find out what happened behind the scenes?
Without naming names, I've worked at a couple of manufacturing companies where quantity was the priority over quality. Ship it! Move the boxes! Make the numbers! At least people (children, even!) weren't going to get potentially poisoned and die from the wrong decision in those cases.
The NY Times story outlines many examples of known problems being ignored and proper standardized work not being followed. This is a management problem, not a government problem.
The Georgia food plant that federal investigators say knowingly shipped contaminated peanut butter also had mold growing on its ceiling and walls, and it has foot-long gaps in its roof, according to results of a federal inspection.
The firm took no steps to clean its plant after the test results alerted the company to the contamination, he said, and the inspection team found problems with the plant's routine cleaning procedures as well.
Previous inspections of the plant by the Georgia State Agriculture Department found dirty surfaces, grease residue and dirt buildup throughout the plant. They also found rust residue that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to enter, and numerous other problems.
And it wasn't just this one isolated factory, where they could blame one lowly manager. They also had similar problems with a plant in Texas. No salmonella there, so no problem? Um, the “results” were good, but the process was terrible — a dirty filthy plant with roaches everywhere.
This planetfeedback.com page that I stumbled across searching for perspectives from managers lists contact info for the owner and president of the company? I wonder if I can get a podcast interview with him, ha ha.
It's just sad. I'm about out of outrage anymore. What's the root cause? Our culture? Our society? Not looking good… but thank goodness for Captain “Sully” and his crew, at least. I'm long overdue in blogging about that bright shiny story. Did you know his local library is going to forgive the fines and late fees resulting from him losing a library book in the Hudson River?? What was he reading? A book on business ethics. Amazing. Nice ethics by the library, by the way!!
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