Corporate greed can literally make you sick

Tuesday March 9, 2010


Who doesn't feel like throwing rotten tomatoes at someone these days? Commercial banks and Wall Street have been giving us poor performances; the health care reform debate has taken up center stage for too long; a number of government officials are behaving so badly they should have been booed out of office long ago. Corruption and scandal are a constant theme in the drama of our uncertain present and future. As Bill Moyers said in his talk at the Dowmel Lecture series last week, "Greed is self-governing." There is a lot of corporate greed going around these days and average American citizens are its captive audience. We certainly do not deserve to have rotten tomatoes thrown at us.

But we have had rotten tomatoes thrown at us or at least served to us -- literally. Kraft Foods has been selling moldy tomato products for some time it turns out. According to a New York Times story two weeks ago, the owner of SK Foods, the supplier to Kraft, "greased the palms of a handful of corporate buyers in exchange for lucrative contracts and confidential information on bids submitted by competitors." It also shipped millions of pounds of substandard tomato paste and puree to customers "with falsified documentation to mask the problems."

I don't know about you, but tomato paste is a staple in my kitchen cupboard. I use it in soups and sauces, meat and vegetable dishes. Now I am feeling a little queasy about the meat loaf and pasta I have served to family and guests over the past few years. The mold count has been so high in these products that the sale "should have been prohibited under federal law."


The prosecutors said that no one was at a health risk or made sick but the moldy products. Physically sick that is. Maybe bad tomatoes can't harm us but I feel sickened by the idea that I have been duped again, been made a victim by the greediness of people who seem to lack ethical values.

I guess it's true that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but does it have to corrupt the catsup? More than 55 companies were sold the tainted shipments, and while some detected the problem and sent them back, most did not and the products were sold to you and me. It's bad enough that I have to worry about where the melamine in my dog's food went and what product it is being used to flavor now. I was even more worried that the beef I was buying to make the above-mentioned meat loaf might be harboring e. coli bacteria, but it never occurred to me that the salsa might be a source of concern.

The plot for this scandal is thicker than a good marinara sauce. Some of the players are brokers and buyers for companies like Kraft and Nabisco. My favorite is Robert C Turner Jr., "who began taking bribes while working as a purchasing manager for Nabisco." In 2004, he went to work for B&G Foods, the maker of Ortega Mexican foods and other products and continued to take bribes as he "rose to become their director of purchasing." The article continues: "Mr., Turner, an Eagle Scout, confessed to taking more than $65,000 in bribes in all."

An Eagle Scout? Did he earn "The Rotten Tomato" badge for his recent activities? The top buyer for Kraft Foods, (not an Eagle Scout), took $158,000 in bribes" and bought 230 million pounds of processed tomatoes from SK Foods from 2004-2008.

SK Food filed for bankruptcy in May, and its CEO, Frederick Scott Salyer was arrested last month and will face charges of mail and wire fraud.

There is no question we need stronger food safety legislation. A new report from the Make Our Food Safe coalition and published by Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, found that the costs of foodborne illness is $152 billion annually.


But it seems we also need some top executive safety legislation as well. Moyers addressed the kinds of inequality threatening our society, not least among them, economic inequality caused by the corporate greed that has been given even more leeway by the recent Supreme Court campaign finance ruling.

"Society can be undone by deceit and denial," Moyers said. He mentioned a book he had read, "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkenson and Kate Pickett, that addresses what happens to countries where the rich have all the power.

"By every measure that matters, relatively equal nations far outperform nations where income and wealth concentrate at the top. Not wealth; not resources; not culture, climate, diet, or system of government. Furthermore, more-unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them -- the well-off as well as the poor. . . .Almost every modern social problem -- ill-health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness -- is more likely to occur in a less- equal society. This is why America, by most measures the richest country on earth, has per capita shorter average life span, more cases of mental illness, more obesity, and more of its citizens in prison than any other developed nation."

While we are deciding whether or not we want ketchup with our fries, we had better start deciding we want a more equal society.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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