Peanut Case: Placing Profit Ahead of Public Interest



The justice system came down hard and heavy this week on the former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America and two other executives. The owner was sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly selling unsafe, salmonella-tainted food.

A news release from the FBI described it as the largest criminal sentence in a food safety case. Articles and links to the story dominated the most-linked to URLs and most retweeted tweets lists in the Signals social media monitoring system as evidenced in the word cloud generated by the system. The peanut case was mentioned almost 11,000 times in the system from Monday through Friday.

Peanut butter word cloud

“Stewart Parnell (the company’s former CEO) absolutely knew that they were shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter. They knew it, and they covered it up,” said a food safety lawyer who represented some of the victims, according to a report at NPR.

The peanut debacle is a stark illustration of a food company placing profit ahead of public interest. Food safety issues like this one, the food industry’s structural change, and other issues over the last several decades have contributed to the food industry’s loss of social license and freedom to operate. It’s one of several events that served as a catalyst for the Food Safety Modernization Act.

The case also fuels the widespread public perception that “big is bad” and big companies will put profit ahead of public interest.

CCFI research shows us there’s an inverse relationship between the size of a company or organization and the perception of shared values that drive trust. Many consumers believe that “big” companies will put profit ahead of public interest. So “big” technology from “big” companies is plagued by significant public skepticism.

According to research, the only way to overcome “big food bias” is through increased transparency.

While consumers have been asking for transparency, there have been varying attempts at defining it. CCFI’s research defines it and provides a clear path to address growing skepticism about food. Effectively implementing the Seven Values of Transparency can help companies and organizations build trust with their most important audiences.

Perceived Motivation is only one of the Seven Values of Transparency, but it’s a dominant one. Consumer perception that big companies are putting profit ahead of public interest must be overcome before any meaningful conversation can begin. The process used to address public concerns is also very important. Consumers ask, “Are you listening? Are you acknowledging I’ve been heard? Are you explaining how and why you make decisions?”

In conjunction with its latest research, CCFI will unveil a Transparency Index this fall – a tool that will provide specific guidance to companies about how best to provide the information consumers are looking for in a way that will ultimately improve level of trust.

Overcoming perceived motivation requires a commitment to engaging a proven process consistently and over time. A proven process shows that your motivations are aligned with consumers and you are being transparent.

As we increase both the distance most consumers have from food production and the level of technology we implement, we must dramatically improve our ability and commitment to build trust with consumers and other stakeholders who grant social license.