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What if Nestle Had Told the FDA?

Nestle USA has gotten kudos all around for conducting its own inspections of Peanut Corporation of America factories and for opting not to use PCA's products when those inspections turned up all kinds of unsavory, unsanitary conditions. You can read the detailed reports on the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce Web site where they were posted in connection with last week's hearings about the PCA/salmonella scandal.

I agree that Nestle USA did a good job by not just relying on a third-party inspector. It's a shame that PCA didn't change its ways when Nestle told the company what it had found -- even when Nestle offered to help, as it did when it reported that PCA lacked a plan for monitoring pathogens (such as salmonella).

But a number of readers commenting on Washington Post's report about Nestle USA's inspections asked an intriguing question: What might have happened had Nestle taken its findings to the FDA right away? Could a great deal of suffering -- and nine deaths! -- have been averted had it been more widely known that PCA was potentially selling salmonella-tainted peanuts?

Edie Burge, a spokesperson for Nestle USA, tells me, "We did share our detailed audit results with PCA, which provided a comprehensive overview of the issues we uncovered during our audit. As you know, we are not required to inform the government about problems we find as a result of our internal audits of potential suppliers."

That's how the system works. And of course it's not Nestle USA's job to inspect factories on behalf of the American people. That's the FDA's job.

The Obama administration has pledged to revamp the FDA's operations to better equip the agency to handle the complex challenges of keeping America's food supply safe. Getting that right could mean we wouldn't have to worry about these things so much any more.

Complicating the story: Nestle USA issued a press release on January 28 that read in part "We are pleased to advise that no Nestle USA products have been affected or recalled as a result" of the PCA/salmonella issue. So what to make of a February 3 recall of Nestle HealthCare Nutrition's recall of its OPTIFAST Honey Nut 'n Oat Nutritional Bars "due to possible Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) Contamination and Potential Health Risk"?

Turns out, Nestle HealthCare Nutrition isn't the same as Nestle USA -- though, as Edie Burge explains, they both report to the same Nestle headquarters in Switzerland.

I don't know about you, but I'm inclined to withhold my kudos for now.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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I was pretty disappointed to find out that Nestle was the ONLY big company that actually sent people out. I have no doubt if they'd informed the FDA or the USDA that it would not have been lost.

I went to the Kellogg web site wanting to express my dismay that they took food safety so lightly, but oddly could not find a place to express that sentiment.

They should stop worrying about whether Michael Phelps is partying-hard and start focusing on really important things like whether their suppliers are safe.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 23, 2009 7:15 AM | Report abuse

We keep talking about "toxic assets" in the financial system. It may be literally true in our food supply chain.

How many failures does it take to finally figure out that "voluntary" monitoring and compliance does NOT work?!

In the US, both because of the me-me-me culture, the capitalistic bent, the speed of business, and probably other factors, all the "conscience" has been taken out of businesses. All is left is a finely honed profit machine which enriches the executives in the pretext of enriching the share holders with the consumers interest and employees wellbeing taken out of the equation.

So regulation is a dirty word only if you believe that the "country" somehow does not include employees and consumers.

For all the Small Government conservatives out there, I say, move to Togo. I hear that the Government is really small there --- much to your liking.

Posted by: kblgca | March 23, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Consider this: If Nestle had quickly reported its own inspection findings to the Government, you can bet that no further private inspections would ever be permitted by any supplier. I don't know if Nestle had to execute a confidentiality agreement before being allowed to send their own inspectors to PCA, but I would expect something of the sort. I doubt any factory would agree to private inspections unless they could control the dissemination of the results. So don't be so quick to criticize Nestle -- I'd prefer they be able to do their inspections, even if they are prohibited from releasing the results without the supplier's approval.

Posted by: johnemory | March 23, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Don't blame Nestle for the FDA's failure. This is another example of why we cannot depend on the private industry to regulate itself.

Posted by: Noway1 | March 23, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

To expand on johnemory's comments a bit, our society is so litigious, PCA would have probably sued Nestle, and accuse them of slander or violating confidentiality, or some other BS. I don't think they had a choice but to keep their discoveries under wraps. Personally, I would prefer food producers to do more of their own checks on suppliers, and the decision to report violations to the FDA is their choice.

Posted by: gateway_joe | March 23, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Edie Burge: "... As you know, we are not **required** to inform the government about problems we find..."

WOW! What if they had found that PCA was breeding anthrax spores? Or what if they saw them adding nuclear waste to ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel in 55 gal drums? Would they still have no responsibility to the common good? What PCA was doing was just a reprehensible as the above examples and had the potential to be just as deadly.

What about growing a conscience here, Nestle?

As for kick back from suppliers, who is going to refuse to do business with Nestle, one of the largest food producers on the planet? Confidentiality agreements, johnemory, be damned! Such agreements cannot be enforced under such immoral and illegal conditions.


Posted by: DLDx | March 23, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Nestle's reaction is precisely why we need a stronger government oversight. They looked out for *their* butts, but no one else's. In fact, competition demands it. For Nestle, it's not good enough that Nestle succeeds, but that all its competitors fail. Every game needs referees - it's time to end this deregulation tragicomedy of the last 20 years.

And doncha just luv the "Nestle HealthCare Nutrition Division isn't Nestle" remark? They don't even want their own partners to succeed, apparently! I can't believe in this day and age that any company would believe that consumers would draw the fine line they do. Look at AIG - that name will become as hated as Hitler, even though only one division was behind the collapse.

Posted by: Peggy_M | March 23, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Nestle corp. regularly provided infant formula to third world moms for free until their milk dried up so that they could start charging them money and have a trapped market. Good luck if you're looking to NESTLE to keep anyone honest. That's the Government's job (or supposed to be anyway).

Posted by: catweasel3 | March 23, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Well done catweasel3, Peggy_M and, of course, Jennifer respectively for digging up an old irrelevant and ill-informed chestnut, for mis-quoting a Nestlé representative and for generally slinging mud at a well-managed company protecting its consumers, employees and shareholders.

Posted by: angusfreathy | March 24, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

The comments reflect an unfamiliarity with audits. (1) NO confidentiality agreement can EVER demand confidentiality of criminal conduct. (2) Audits won't stop, because they are required by law. (3) Quality experts inside companies like the ones inside PCA, who do the audits and who respond to the audit of their company, push companies to respond within the law and to disqualify unqualified suppliers. However, they get shouted down, threatened with firings, or are just not allowed to conduct any more audits. (4) While other agencies have had web portals that allow people to "snitch" after an audit or even on snitch on their own companies, FDA didn't get one till after the peanut tragedy, because the last administration did everything it could to prevent FDA from succeeding.
The truth is, FDA historically never gets any power or attention until after people die, and many companies will always chose the cheapest. most dangerous ingredients until FDA tells them to stop. Let FDA and dead people do their risk-management and compliance for them. As long as FDA is weak, company compliance will be weak.

Posted by: achamblee | March 26, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Here is information on a pistachio recall:

Posted by: muckraker462 | March 27, 2009 1:06 AM | Report abuse

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