Food producers be aware: food safety is a serious thing, and if it is done negligently, or fraudulently, you could go to jail over it. My good friend Andy Frame, Agriculture and Food Law LL.M. candidate and writer for Food Safety News, has a typically awesome piece up on the ongoing hearings in the Peanut Corporation of America criminal case.

In 2007, Peanut Corp. executives knowingly shipped peanut butter that was contaminated with Salmonella, then allegedly conspired to falsify food safety testing certificates and obstruct justice. If you are a food processor, read Andy’s entire piece to see how ugly things can actually get for you if you do not produce safe food. If you want to take one step back and see how different food companies should be dealing with one another, then I draw your attention to these bits:

Paragraph 19. “On or about April 12, 2007, via email to [unindicted coconspirator] #2, a PCA official suggested that totes of peanut meal at PCA Plainview be used to fill an order, noting that ‘[t]hey need to air hose the top off though because they are covered in dust and rat crap.’ [Uninindicted coconspirator] #2 forwarded said email to Stewart Parnell, who responded: ‘Clean em all up and ship them …’ A PCA official then instructed PCA Plainview employees, via email: ‘Please, Please make sure someone air off the totes before they are loaded on the truck. They are filthy on top.’”

Paragraphs 22-24. “On June 8, June 13, and June 20, 2007, Steweart Parnell and [unindicted coconspirator] #4 issued and caused to be issued to a customer a false and misleading [certificate of analysis] containing microbiological test results from a particular lot of peanut products manufactured prior to the lot of peanut products shipped to the customer.”

Paragraph 42. “On or about July 21, 2008, in response to an inquiry from [unindicted coconspirator] #2 about a customer request for a [certificate of analysis], Mary Wilkerson stated, via email: ‘Waiting on retest! The product was out on Coliforms?????”

Peanut butter is one of those products that doesn’t just go into retail containers to be sold as a spread. Like ground meat, peanut butter can be ordered in bulk by another food processor to be added as a component of its products. For example, Peanut Corp. peanut butter may have found its way into pretzels, cookies, or ice cream. A careful food processor is legally (and morally) obligated to ensure that a constituent of its product was safely made. In the quoted exchange, we see a customer of Peanut Corp. very sensibly asking for this kind of product safety certification from Peanut Corp., which is to take when you are making a food product, yet the buyer was shipped unsanitary food anyway because their chosen method of quality assurance was subject to the dishonesty of Peanut Corp. executives.

Sometimes the best kinds of food safety risk management techniques are very low tech and do not involve the services of a lab, the trust of your input provider, or an attorney like me. One of my favorite risk management techniques to recommend is a simple site visit for anyone purchasing a product component from another food handler or manufacturer. In the quoted exchange, the inquiring buyer got a counterfeit safety certificate from Peanut Corp, which is reprehensible, but possible in an age when most of our business is done electronically. A simple walk-though of the Peanut Corp facility would have revealed to any purchaser what the falsified certificate did not, the “dust and rat crap” on top of product containers they were about to incorporate into their own cookies and pretzels. Trust, but verify.