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Poison for Profit, Local Style February 7, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

The salmonella-in-peanut-butter scandal is already old, and seems to have dropped off the outrage radar already, but I feel compelled to bring it up, since I made such a passionate call for outrage in the Chinese melamine-laced milk scandal. The bottom line is, of course, that greed and unethical business practices aren’t limited to a country on the other side of the world—Yes We Can poison our own people right here in our own back yard! The story involves fudging lab results, lying to the FDA, and disregarding state and federal inspections. Here are the basic fact, from Associated Press:

Federal investigators on Friday said the Lynchburg, Va.-based company knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products from its Blakely, Ga., plant after tests showed the products were contaminated. Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could make it harmful to consumers’ health.

So far, the salmonella outbreak has sickened about 575 people in 43 states and may have contributed to at least eight deaths. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation and more than 1,550 products have been recalled.

The company has denied any wrongdoing, but said it is investigating.

So is this to be considered our own melamine story? Yes and no. The deliberate shipments of contaminated peanut butter products involve what we can call sins of omission (looking the other way), rather than deliberately adding harmful ingredients to a product, and for some, that difference between a passive and an active act is important. But is it? From a practical point of view, salmonella poisoning may be a different kind of threat than melamine poisoning, but morally speaking, both are results of an utter disregard for the welfare and humanity of the consumers. Here is one of those rare occasions where I think we reach the same conclusion regardless of whether we are utilitarians, deontologists, or philosophers of care (virtue-ethicists): For the utilitarian, the focal point is that people have been grievously harmed in both cases, so, no significant moral difference. For the deontologist, consumers have been shown disrespect and treated as a means to an end (for profit) either way, so no difference. And for the care ethicist, the virtue of caring for our fellow human beings has been violated, regardless of whether one turned a blind eye to a contaminant, or deliberately added a poison.

So if the managers of the GA plant were indeed aware of the health risk inherent in their product when they shipped it, what should their penalty be? Recently two people—a middle man and a manufacturer—received death sentences in China for their role in the melamine milk poisoning scandal, and the former manager of the Sanlu Dairy group received a life sentence. No long trial, no lengthy appeals. Some would say that this was a PR move, more than anything else. Is this the kind of punishment we would want for manufacturers of foods that poison our own citizens? Keep in mind that we are outraged that contaminated peanut butter products are sold in the United States precisely because we have a tradition and a system that, at least nominally, recognizes the intrinsic value of each citizen.



1. Dwight Furrow - February 8, 2009

There are some cases in which the distinction between acts of commission and acts of ommission makes no moral difference. And this seems to be one of them. Permitting dangerous products seems as culpable as placing them on the market. Furthermore, the analysis depends on which act one is describing. Melamine was deliberately placed in a variety of products by the producers–an act of commission. Salmonella was allowed to be present in the peanut products–seemingly an act of ommission. But the peanut products were deliberately distributed despite evidence that they contained salmonella–an act of commission.

The other relevent difference between these cases has to do with the knowledge on the part of the people involved. If I remember rightly, the dangers of melamine were not widely known until after the ensuing publicity and discussion brought them to light. I would guess that was especially the case among merchants and small producers in China. That is certainly not the case with regard to salmonella which is widely known to be lethal.

If my assumptions here are correct the peanut product producers are more liable.

2. Nina Rosenstand - February 9, 2009

I agree, intent is one thing, and intent with factual knowledge is another. But because of the preceding globally publicized melamine scandal associated with multiple dog and cat kidney damage and deaths in 2006-07 (and a thorough scientific agricultural study in Italy some years before) I consider it likely that the dangers of melamine would be known to at least the Sanlu dairy managers, if not the actual manufacturer. And there is also a matter of responsibility/culpability for the cover-up, which to me is the more egregious moral issue.

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