The day before federal health officials began a criminal investigation into the actions of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), Beth Falwell, daughter of PCA founder Hugh Parnell, in an ill-advised exclusive interview spoke to a local station, asking for understanding and the benefit of the doubt.
Federal investigators says PCA shipped out peanut products that had tested positive for salmonella at least 12 times during the past two years. The FDA says PCA shipped each out after retesting with a different laboratory. The interview reveals two messages from Falwell. One is a distraught family member, obviously concerned for the family company that is not likely to survive the crisis. The other is more defiant, claiming that the FDA investigation is exaggerated.
“Right now it’s not a law, maybe it should be. But he didn’t break any laws,“ Falwell said.
On Thursday, we revealed how the PCA had emphasized safety, quality, and freshness of product. However, even Falwell could not deny any allegation of cockroaches in the plant, a leaky roof, or the presence of mold. "I'm not saying there weren't," she said.
Based on the interview alone, it's extremely clear that the Peanut Corporation of America doesn't have a crisis communication team in place. While we pointed to a breakdown of the first step — situation analysis — in the crisis communication process, it seems the communication matches the operations, with extreme negligence. Not once, that we are aware of, had the company expressed any empathy or remorse for those afflicted until the criminal investigation was launched (see the newest statement).
In addition, we recently stumbled onto evidence that this is not the first time the plant has had to recall product due to improper and unsafe operations at its plant in Gorman, Texas, which is now closed. Although the report dates back to the 1990s, the Peanut Corporation of America recalled thousands of pounds of product because they exceeded the FDA's established tolerance level for aflatoxin. Aflatoxins, a fungus, are toxic and among the most carcinogenic substances known.
While manufacturers and processors have recalls from time to time for any number of reasons, the report stands out because mold was one of the many problems that the FDA noted during this inspection and, for years, the company has claimed "providing a quality product at a fair cost has been the credence our business has grown up with for the past 28 years." Incidentally, the family did not own the company between 1995 and 2000 (they sold the company, and bought it back).