'Peanut proud' farm town struggles with tainted image
Blakely, Ga., was a quiet community until the salmonella scare hit home.
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For one, fertilization plans for the spring planting are in disarray as farmers reconfigure their schedules by each day's news. Never mind profit at this point, farmers say. With prices on peanuts –the No. 1 cash crop – down by more than 30 percent, debt service becomes the only goal.Skip to next paragraph
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"Nobody is excited about putting anything in the ground right now," says Deede Poole, a crop insurance agent.
In many ways, as Smitty's Cafe waitress Tammie McDaniels says, "it's just not fair that an awesome little town like this is getting such a bad name."
Indeed, PCA used few Georgia peanuts. In fact, one lab worker testified to Congress that the original contamination may have come from organic peanuts shipped in from China. The other plants here, such as Birdsong and Golden Peanut, are known as quality operators, shipping local product to some of the biggest brand names on grocery store shelves.
The salmonella case is likely to lead to potentially dramatic changes at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with ensuring America's food safety.
Self-regulation didn't work
To many, the case proves that the self-policing regulatory environment – in which major food companies protect their own brands by vigilance at the plant level – is inadequate. Today, a majority of food production is outsourced to independent operations like PCA, which provided peanut paste and other products to more than 1,700 different food items.
"The FDA now has to take a far more active and aggressive role in the process than it has had to historically, because brand-name food companies no longer own as much of the means of production as they once did," says Gene Grabowski, who has handled several recent salmonella outbreaks as a corporate crisis manager at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington.
But regulatory reform and possible criminal charges for executives are small comfort for Blakely residents like Mr. Brown, the middle school teacher, who is deeply bothered by what might be called cultural culpability of residents. Like many here, he personally knew and liked Sammy Lightsey, the plant manager who refused to answer congressional inquiries after being subpoenaed to House hearings last week.
"Down here, in this culture, we're taught to do what the boss tells you to do," says another teacher, who didn't want to give his name. Former plant worker Brandon White called the PCA plant "a nasty place where people got too comfortable and just didn't care."
A bill in the Georgia legislature will attempt to break that "culture of silence," as rural sociologist Sandy Rikoon calls it, by giving more power to local health officials to instigate inspections on the basis of local scuttlebutt.
"Just for workers, you face so much risk by reporting, especially if they end up, like in this case, closing the plant down," says Dr. Rikoon, a professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "To some degree, what happens is stuff becomes routine. A little bit of dirt here, well, it's always been that way. After a while, you don't think it's a big deal."
Other recent food-contamination cases, like the evidence of salmonella from a California spinach field in 2007, indicate that consumers tend to return, often in force, to affected products once a culprit has been found. The plight of Blakely, however, is perhaps best expressed by a local hardware-store owner who answers questions from a reporter with determined, jaw-set silence.
"Frankly, for the peanut industry, this will be a speed bump," says Mr. Grabowski. "But for the town of Blakely, this is going to be a blow that'll take a long time from which to recover."