It was great political theater. Greg Walden held up a big glass jar full of peanut products wrapped in yellow crime-scene tape and dared Stewart Parnell - the owner of the Georgia plant that shipped salmonella-tainted peanut products - to eat them.
Parnell declined. He also declined to answer any other questions put to him by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, invoking his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
Parnell has good reason to keep his mouth shut: He's under federal criminal investigation for allegedly telling managers of his company, Peanut Corp. of America, to send out products even after it became known they were contaminated. Roughly 600 people across the United States have been sickened by those products, and at least nine have died.
"Documents made public on Wednesday by the investigations subcommittee show that [Parnell's] company stopped using a private laboratory because too many tests done there had showed contamination," according to the New York Times.
"Mr. Parnell complained in an e-mail message to [the plant manager] that the positive salmonella tests were 'costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice.'"
According to an earlier Times investigative report, this latest "food safety train wreck" was the result of disgracefully lax oversight by both the state and federal governments:
"An examination of the ... case reveals a badly frayed food safety net. Interviews and government records show that state and federal inspectors do not require the peanut industry to inform the public - or even the government - of salmonella contamination in its plants. And industry giants ... used processed peanuts in a variety of products but relied on the factory to perform safety testing and divulge any problems."
The Times recounts that a salmonella contamination problem was found in a Georgia peanut processing plant run by ConAgra in 2007 and that plant was made to clean up.
"But neither federal regulators nor state regulators imposed those same standards on other peanut facilities like the [PCA] one, records and interviews show," the story adds. "To the contrary, inspection reports on the Peanut Corporation of America plant over the last three years show that state inspectors - Georgia has only 60 agents to monitor 16,000 food-handling businesses - missed major problems that workers say were chronic."
As described in USA Today, the food safety inspection system was a joke - a sick joke:
"Major foodmakers relied on audits that PCA paid for to guarantee that their processes were good. Private labs that tested products for contamination and found positives gave that information only to the company - the typical industry practice - because there are no laws that they inform regulators. The FDA's Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told lawmakers the FDA wanted new powers, specifically the right to receive internal test results during routine FDA inspections."
It was only a matter of time before the right-wing deregulation mania produced food disasters like this one, just as it has produced a disaster on Wall Street. Trusting business executives - whether they manage hedge funds or make peanut butter - to police themselves is either criminally naïve or just plain criminal.
All the subcommittee members, including our own Congressman Walden, the ranking Republican member, are now promising to repair the food safety net. That's nice to hear, but it begs the question: Where were Walden and his fellow conservatives when that safety net was being shredded?