Contrition after getting caught

My latest column from Texas A&M’s Center for Food Safety.

(I quite appreciate the freedom I have to delve into more substantive issues). 

The VW microbus: popular in an Arlo Guthrie song (Alice’s Restaurant), home to shag carpeting, and where people who came of age in the 1970s actually did that – in a VW microbus. 

But with news that Volkswagen rigged emission tests on some 11 million cars, the favored brand of professors and hipsters is collapsing.

And they’re not helping their cause.

At a corporate event to unveil the new Passat, the U.S. president of VW said, “Let’s be clear about this. Our company was dishonest. And in my German words, we have totally screwed up.

“Thank you very much for coming, enjoy the evening, up next is Lenny Kravitz.”

Or as comedian and British export John Oliver summarized:

“VW: Hitler trusted us, why won’t you?”

There’s a playbook for public contrition – even in the 140 characters of the Twitterverse — but it’s the day-in-day-out delivery that builds trust, in relationships with that person you met in a VW microbus or with global conglomerates.

Or that homespun ice-cream or peanut paste producer.

Blue Bell ice cream has done a lousy job of taking seriously their food safety responsibilities. Executives at Peanut Corporation of American, whose products killed nine and sickened at least 741 in 2009, received prison sentences varying from 28-to-three years for a not-so elaborate scheme to, as reported by USA Today and others over the years, “fabricate certificates of analysis in a scheme that falsely showed peanut butter from the Blakely, Georgia plant was free of Salmonella and other pathogens. In fact, there had been no testing of the product, or tests had confirmed contamination, prosecutors showed.”

Before the judge issued the sentences, former CEO Stewart Parnell said; “This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family. I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened.”

Parnell’s daughter said they never knowingly endangered customers, adding,

“No one thought that the products were unsafe or could harm someone. Dad brought them home to us. We all ate it.”

That’s from the contrition playbook. And it’s not enough.

Today, as the number of people sick with Salmonella from Mexican cucumbers continues to climb – 3 deaths, 671 people sick, the U.S. distributor has donated to a non-profit group’s campaign aimed at improving foodborne disease diagnosis and it urged other produce companies to do the same.

San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce partner David Murray said in a Sept. 25 statement, that the firm is “absolutely devastated” by the outbreak and is working with authorities in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as food-safety experts, to analyze its processes and fix any problems.

That’s from the contrition playbook. And it’s not enough.

Joe Nocera of The New York Times wrote recently about parallels between the peanut case and auto recalls, and while there are legal nuances about whether to go after corporations or individuals, that’s up for the lawyers to decide (The Untouchables couldn’t get Al Capone for murder, but they did get him for tax fraud).

Nocera writes the urge to prosecute corporate executives is the single most powerful deterrent imaginable — far more powerful than a fine, which is meaningless to a company like G.M.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a former attorney general of that state, said, “I guarantee you, one sentence like [Parnell’s] would change auto safety dramatically and enduringly.”

Get past the playbook of contrition and make data public, day-in-day-out, to earn people’s trust.

 Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.


Australia to irradiate tomatoes for pest control; and comfortably racist

It was the only food hook I could find.

I miss Amy. I miss Sorenne. I even miss Australia.

But as noted by Daily Show correspondent (and Brit) John Oliver in a podcast that is stirring up more coverage than Aussie Adam john.oliverScott’s win at the Master’s golf tourney on Sunday, Australia is “a coastal paradise surrounding a rocky hell.”

Oliver was filming in Australia last week. Can’t wait for those shows to air.

In his Bugle podcast, he said: “Australia turns out to be a sensational place, albeit one of the most comfortably racist places I’ve ever been in. They’ve really settled into their intolerance like an old resentful slipper.”

Oliver said he noticed that much vitriol was reserved for Australians of Lebanese origin.

“You can say what you like about Australian racism; it is undeniably specific,” he said.

“I had a couple of Australians – more than one – complain to me about all the ‘Lebos’ in the country, referring apparently to the Lebanese. Who the f— is annoyed by Lebanese people?

“In a way you have to admire the attention to detail. Not just all those Arabs, but the Lebanese. That’s like saying ‘You know who I can’t stand? Sri Lankans. Malaysians not a problem. Bangladeshis, lovely people, but Sri Lankans – I’ve got no time for them, Jose.’

“How many Lebanese people can there actually be in Australia? There’s only just over four million of these people in f—ing Lebanon.

“The one thing Australia cannot argue is: ‘There’s no room here in this country’, because that land is f—ing gigantic. That aside: fantastic place, can’t wait to go back.”

Oliver also interviewed former prime minister John Howard, describing the encounter as “an experience he didn’t seem to enjoy to his maximum capacity.”

One listener commented, “Where did you go in Aus? On the Bugle it sounded like you only met bogans and John Howard. No wonder you think we’re racists!”

(A bogan I’ve learned, through regular usage and Wikipedia, is a term that allegedly emerged in Melbourne‘s outer-Western and Melbourne_images_boganouter-Eastern suburbs in the late 1970s and is now commonly used Australia-wide to identify a person who wore acid wash jeans, ugg boots, and band t-shirts; had mullet style haircuts; and lived in the suburbs.)

The Daily Show is America’s leading fake news show. That means satire.

And Food Standards Australia New Zealand has declared irradiation safe for fresh tomatoes and capsicums (peppers) to destroy insects and bacteria.