Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Man Who Poisoned America

     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.
     From a 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.
     And 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.
     There are 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.
     We're 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.
     In 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.

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