Licorice Recall Exposes More Than Just Corporate Negligence
How on earth did lead make its way into that licorice?! Any reasonable person would ask this question, and that was my initial reaction, too. Sadly, there have been several previous instances of lead contamination in candy, ranging from a relatively nondescript mango candy in 2010 to the bizarrely named “Toxic Waste brand Nuclear Sludge Candy” (yes, it’s actually called that) in 2011, suggesting that this current case of lead in licorice isn’t anything new. Hence, given the relative abundance of previous cases of lead contamination, shouldn’t American Licorice Co. have been more careful about testing for lead in their products? Did they even test for it at all?
Especially since lead is incredibly dangerous for humans, particularly children and pregnant women, it seems fair to expect companies to provide a basic level of quality control in exchange for consumers’ business. We buy products from them, expecting quality and safety in return.
But at the end of the day, in our capitalist society, these corporations exist for profit, and profit only. This is just a fact, not an indictment, and it is the reason I find it very hard to believe it when, in response to the lead situation, American Licorice Co. stated: “Safety is the number one priority for our company.”
That statement reeks of obligatory damage control. Going all the way back to the early 20th century, safety has never been the “number one priority” of corporations in the food industry – just look at the meatpacking industry. In more recent times, while no company ever wants to be at the center of a food safety problem, and all take at least some precautionary measures to prevent one, it’s clear that much more could be done to promote product safety on the part of corporations. However, to do so adds to cumulative costs, and thus detracts from the goal of the American economic system – to gain as much profit as possible.
To put it simply, American Licorice Co. isn’t alone in its practices, due to the nature of the system. Since the tendency has always been for corporations to slack off when nobody is looking, the importance of agencies like the CDPH and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot be understated.
Even if we were to assume that companies take all the sufficient precautionary measures to ensure the safety of their products, a laughably naïve notion, public health agencies are the only protection against corporate carelessness once products reach stores. Once products leave the companies’ hands, potential problems become an issue left for others to solve. And, indeed, problems arise, often after many consumers have bought the product.
Recently, a policy questionnaire about important food issues was completed by both of the presidential nominees, shining some light on the direction each would take regarding food policy while in office. Mitt Romney asserted, “Thankfully, American farmers and producers have a long history of taking responsibility for food safety.”
Well, this “history” is negated when something like the American Licorice Co. case happens. American Licorice Co. should have unquestionably tested its products for lead before the products were released for consumption.
It’s only thanks to government action that the public even learned about the problem. If there were no agency inspecting these products, in this case the CDPH, these products would have been assumed by consumers to be perfectly adequate, and could have harmed many more people than they already have.
This is why Governor Romney, and the Republican Party in general, is mistaken in his view that decreased government regulation is the best approach to take to ensure food safety. In another response to the aforementioned policy questionnaire, his team wrote, “Governor Romney believes preventative practices are best developed by growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain with specific knowledge of the risks, diversity of operations in the industry, and feasibility of potential mitigation strategies.”
In other words, private interests know and act best.
The American Licorice Co. incident underscores the falsity of that statement, as well as the necessity for diligent oversight on industry. Decreased surveillance and the resulting drop in standards would only lower accountability, creating rampant abuse of the system and allowing companies to produce products of inferior quality for the sake of higher profits.
To preserve and gradually improve the safety of food products, public agencies must maintain an acceptable level of control over standards and inspection practices. While it would be most efficient, cost-wise, to transfer full responsibility to private interests, American history, embodied by the lead contamination of American Licorice Co.’s products, shows us the impracticality of this option. It only seems fair, in our corporate world, that some degree of increase in production costs be tolerated, in order to ensure greater food safety and public health.
Reach Contributor Chloe Roddy here.