Where are our watchdogs?
On Monday, Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison because his company, the Peanut Corporation of America, produced salmonella-contaminated peanut butter. He knew there was a problem with the peanut butter and shipped it anyway. More than 700 people became ill, nine died. Among the fatalities are Cliff Tousignant, a Korean War veteran with three Purple Hearts, and Shirley Almer, who fought a brain tumor and lung cancer only to succumb to Parnell’s tainted peanut butter. The conditions at his company’s facility where the peanut butter was produced were appalling — rodents, roaches and bird droppings. People died because Parnell prioritized profits over sanitation.
Johnson & Johnson has agreed to pay more than $2.2 billion in both criminal and civil fines stemming from allegations it aggressively promoted the off-label prescription of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal to elderly people suffering from dementia and children with ADHD and autism. It was not that Risperdal was not an approved drug; it was, just not for the conditions the company was promoting it for. Johnson & Johnson pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor, but unlike the Peanut Corporation of America, no individuals at the company were held accountable. The company knew that Risperdal could increase the activity of the hormone prolactin, which in boys treated with the drug could result in gynecomastia — growth of breast tissue — but they did not disclose this. The drug was also promoted to control the behavior of dementia patients, even though it elevated their risk of stroke, something Johnson & Johnson minimized. Until its patent expired, Risperdal was one of Johnson & Johnson’s best sellers.
Volkswagen, the world’s largest auto manufacturer, could not make a diesel engine with both the power level desired and the emission level required by the EPA. According to the website arstechnica.com, Volkswagen installed a device that would sense when the car was being emission tested and thus allow the emissions control to work properly. However, under normal driving conditions, the emission controls did not work properly and the vehicles emitted more nitrogen oxides into the air than currently allowed by EPA regulations. Volkswagen was purposely, knowingly duplicitous. Volkswagen’s stock has plummeted and it could face billions of dollars in fines in the U.S. My first car was a VW Rabbit, so I already held a negative bias.
DuPont faces thousands of lawsuits over its dumping of C8, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and subsequent contamination of the drinking water near its Washington Works plant in West Virginia. C8 was used in products such as Gore-Tex, stain-resistant carpets and Teflon. It has been linked to birth defects, several cancers and thyroid disease. Internal memos indicate DuPont was aware of some of these risks at least since the 1980s but did not warn the public. It is not limited to guys in West Virginia getting testicular cancer. It is estimated that C8 is present in the blood of 98 percent of the U.S. population. Great, just great.
These are not four isolated examples of bad businesses extracted from Internet archives. These are headlines from just the past few weeks. Each case represents a company behaving unethically and illegally, by putting profits ahead of the public’s welfare.
A large number of Americans think there is too much government regulation, 49 percent according to recent Gallup polls. And some of the incidents mentioned were not uncovered by government regulators, but through litigation. Which raises the question, when was the last FDA inspection of the Peanut Corporation of America facilities? Did the EPA ever do its own water testing in West Virginia near the DuPont facility? Maybe we do not need more regulation, maybe we just need a few more regulators, boots on the ground, to ensure the existing regulations are actually enforced. I know that suggestion does not appeal to the “Honey I Shrunk the Government” crowd, but I like peanut butter, just not enough to risk my life over it.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.