Wednesday's Congressional hearing on the ongoing peanut butter contamination scandal, courtesy of Peanut Corporation of America and Stewart Parnell, reminded me a bit too much of life back in my childhood homeland, Hollywood. There were lights, cameras, props, a script, celebrities (Washington edition), mobs of fans and screaming photographers chasing people down the streets.
But the event was not so much a movie premiere as it was the opening of a tired sequel to what's turned into the longest running film franchise in American history: Apocalypse Chow, a bizarre, hyper-modern murder mystery mashed up with that excellent comedy Dumb & Dumber.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee investigative hearing was called The Salmonella Outbreak: The Continued Failure to Protect The Food Supply, and that was the perfect title for this sequel, because it was exactly the same as every other Congressional hearing on food safety in the last decade--which each House member actually pointed out in their opening statements.
During the 110th Congress, there were eight different hearings, and the same ground was plowed again and again, with no legislative action taken. Food safety oversight in the US has an ongoing identity crisis, but the questions remain the same year after year:
Why is it de facto policy to allow 76 million Americans to become ill annually from food borne disease?
Why are we content with 5,o00 food borne deaths annually?
Why are our food safety standards trapped in the year 1900?
Who is actually monitoring the food supply, the Centers for Disease Control, the Food Safety Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration, no one and everyone?
What exactly do these agencies monitor, why is there a new food recall every week, and what are we going to do…?
Repeat these questions 1,000 times in a flat, droning voice, then repeat again. And again. In a couple hours, you'll have replicated all of the House and Senate food safety action that's gone on in recent memory.
I had an excellent seat at the 4-1/2 hour screening of the 2009 version of Apocalypse Chow, thanks to world-renowned food poisoning attorney Bill Marler. A founding partner of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, Marler has represented clients in every actionable food borne disease outbreak for the last fifteen years. (Above: Marler, center, in the hearing room during a break)
The subject of frequent excoriation by his many critics as an ambulance chasing mofo who dines out on suffering, Marler's actually a brilliant fellow with a big heart. He's a tireless champion of food safety, and writes Marler Blog, the best food safety blog on the internet. He also runs Outbreak!, a non-profit entity that funds global food safety education projects. He's donated thousands of hours of his time to promoting The Cause, and generously finances dozens of non-profit projects that do the same.
Two of Marler’s clients—one a family with a deceased father, and one a family with a gravely ill three-year-old child—testified at the hearing. As of today, Marler represents six different families in the salmonella outbreak, with perhaps thirty more to come. And he's no stranger to Congressional testimony: He's done it three other times, and he commented repeatedly that the hearing would be exact to other hearings he's attended. He was right. It was outrageous and mundane all at once. Same story, different day, different Congress. But new dead food poisoning victims, from one of America's most beloved and staple foods. Which is routinely fed to children, as President Obama himself pointed out recently.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants...
I spent the day before the hearing shadowing Marler as he met with various employees of the USDA and members of Congress, about food safety issues in general and peanut butter in particular. He's currently a candidate to be deputy secretary of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA, which deals with meat, poultry and egg standards, and he was being eyeballed by the appropriate interested parties. All of these meetings, too, was a bit Hollywood.
The buildings on Capitol Hill are built on such a huge scale they’re like movie sets, and the people hurrying down the cavernous halls are straight out of central casting. There was a gang of dred-locked Michael Phelps fans with maryjane legalization signs; crunchy greenies lobbying for sustainable energy; a pro-life group in Sarah Palin gear. In every office, there were bright-eyed assistants running around with clipboards, multiple cell phones and exaggerated self importance, just like at every movie studio in Hollywood. In meetings, there were handshakes and smiles, then a script pitch—here is what should happen in food safety—a brief discussion of who will direct and who will fund the movie; and finally air kisses and an exit.
Marler’s meeting with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT3) was particularly excellent. Rep. DeLauro recently introduced HE 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act, and The PEW Charitable Trust had taken out a full page print ad in a local magazine in support. Rep. DeLauro autographed the ad for Marler, and the inscription reads:
Who is fighting the good fight. Many thanks! Let’s work together. Love, Rosa DeLauro
“Billy” also spent part of the day counseling his clients, who faced the daunting task of discussing profoundly tragic events in their private lives with members of Congress (as well as the media) in the presence of the man responsible, Stewart Parnell.
But Marler is both dazzling and sedate in this kind of tricky and awful situation, and soothed his nervous clients. In the afternoon, as a purely humanitarian service--no legal fees were charged, and it was solely in the interest of promoting a better food safety system for the entire country--Marler was very, very busy explaining the nuances of poisonings and lab discrepancies, FDA failures, CDC failures, and the differences between state and federal food safety laws to confused House members and their assistants.
He also e-mailed cleverly worded questions to House members who were on the hearing committee; these were designed to get the appropriately damning responses out of those bad actors in the outbreak who’d been subpoenaed to appear (such as Parnell and his plant foreman, Sam Lightsley).
Marler also did countless (seriously, countless) interviews with traditional media outlets (newspaper, television). Each of these organizations had a reporter looking for an expert’s explosive, headline-making pronouncement on the scandal. (Above, Marler at NBC, mid-interview)
Your intrepid reporter accompanied Marler to the Washington NBC studios for an interview for the national Nightly News with Brian Williams, to witness the filming of one of these ad campaigns for the food safety identity crisis. Reporter Tom Costello questioned Marler on camera for almost twenty minutes, and they discussed every aspect of the salmonella outbreak, but just a single sentence from the interview made it on air.
Marler, in close-up, says: "The breach of morals on the part of this company in this particular instance is shocking."
The sentence was completely off topic to the rest of the conversation with Costello, and it was not so much explosive as it was moderately judgmental, but it became the focal point for the story that eventually aired, in which NBC tried to incite viewer outrage. And in a town in which equivocating is coin of the realm, Marler’s sound byte set the tone for the next day’s proceedings.
As the sequel to Apocalypse Chow, the hearing was meant to attach Real American Faces to the anonymous statistical numbers of dead and ill, which would make the film simultaneously more devastating and more relatable. But making the outbreak even more relatable was an odd goal, because the peanut butter poisonings have been competing with the Economic Stimulus package as front-page news. The number of verified illnesses is climbing, the death toll is expected to rise, it's now the biggest product recall in US history.
Contaminated products are showing up in school lunch programs, in military meals, in disaster relief packages. Peanut butter sales nationally have dropped 25 percent, a devastating event in a precarious economy. As of today, even more products are being recalled from Peanut Corporation of America's Texas plant, due to bird and rat excrement (and dead bodies) found all over the facility. And thanks to President Obama finally making a public statement about peanut butter that included a mention of his own child, everyone in America is relating to peanut butter.
Still, giving peanut butter a personalized back story was good cover for the real reason for the Congressional hearing, which was to make it appear as if Our Elected Officials are actually doing something about the perpetually contaminated food supply, rather than just conducting hearings. For the record, at the moment, they're not.
As mentioned above, the Rayburn building was a mob scene on the day of the hearing, with people fighting for seats in the hearing room, media scrambling to stake out territory. A line of people who wanted to experience history snaked up the corridor, and there was an “overflow” room for the unlucky souls who didn't get seats. The hearing witnesses were held “backstage” in Congressional staff offices to keep them from being overwhelmed by media. The grim, circus-like nature of the hearing was amplified by several elephant-in-the room questions: Would Stewart Parnell show up to testify? Would he do anything other than plead the fifth? Would the media get their hoped-for reaction shots when the victims' families wept in public? Would the House members get their collective asses in gear?
Wild Rumors, Spreading As Fast As The Recall
The waiting crowd rapidly bonded over the mistreatment by their captors (stern staffers were pushing people into seats, barking orders, separating companions; your intrepid blogger was chastised more than once for snapping pix without a press pass dangling from her neck). People started to whisper rumors they'd heard in the hallway, via text message, on the internets: The FBI had just raided a third PCA plant, and closed it down (false: PCA's Texas plant had been raided the day before. Still, this raised yet another obvious question about government inaction: Why the hell did it take weeks for that closure to occur, given the shattering conditions at the company's Georgia plant?!).
There was supposedly another death to add to the body count (sadly true); two of Brangelina's kids had gotten sick and Brad Pitt would be at the hearing (false, but fantastic); a Senator had gotten ill from eating tainted crackers from a Senate vending machine (false, opinion redacted); and apparently Congressional members had devastating new evidence against Stewart Parnell (true, horrifyingly true).
Marler took his seat in the front row with his clients, and your intrepid blogger retired to a seat a few rows behind. The room fell silent as the Representatives filed in and arranged themselves on the top level of a three-tier platform, like Greek Gods staring down at the witness table and the audience. They were literally above it all, and eventually the physical separation became a metaphor for the underlying, ironic theme of the day: Moral fury was being directed outward at the lab techs who'd tested the peanut butter, at Georgia agriculture officials, at Stewart Parnell and his atrocious malfeasance, rather than inward at House members themselves, who’d repeatedly failed--for years--to enact workable legislation for food safety. Because by the end of the hearing, this was the take-away message: For all the way we’ve come, we’ll have to go again.
The First WTF? Moment
When it was established that Stuart Parnell was nowhere to be found, the hearing began without him. Each of the subcommittee members read a prepared statement that recapped the outbreak and theatricalized their outrage that constituents had been sickened and killed by food (again...). There was the usual amount of mild FDA criticism, the usual quotidian calls for action. Notable committee members: Subcommittee Chair Bart Stupak (D-MI) read his statement directly off the page like a reluctant third grader in front of a classroom; head down, no eye contact with the audience, toneless. Rep. She Shall Remain Nameless (D-Rilly? You're Still Here?) announced that she'd been on the Energy and Commerce committee for twelve years and had never actually gotten any legislation passed, but she was positive this was the year it was going to happen, thanks to the happy occurrence of salmonella deaths.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) was far more creative. Eleven of his constituents had been poisoned, and his opening salvo was impassioned. He punctuated his speech by holding up a dramatic prop: A clear plastic jar filled with recalled peanut products, which was wrapped with bright yellow caution tape.
This, however, also heightened the sense of déjà vu from previous food safety hearings; a bag of contaminated spinach was repeatedly brandished at the 2007 E. coli hearings. (Above: Rep. Walden and his prop)
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) largely ignored both peanut butter and salmonella; he seemed to have been imported from another movie. His opening statement was a self-indulgent exegesis on how "a hearing like this is both the best of Congress in action and the worst of Congress in action." It was the best, Rep. Barton explained, in his good ol' boy southern drawl, because it was a bipartisan group getting together to make real changes. But it was also the worst of Congress, he advised us, because thanks to this damn peanut buttah hearing, he couldn't be elsewhere on Capitol Hill with his fellow Republicans, screaming about the Economic Stimulus package.
This seemed to be something that was going to scar Rep. Barton for life. And with all due respect, since he was declaiming his partisan angst in front of people whose parents had in part been killed by a total lack of government legislative action, Rep. Barton came off as a total fool. The souls of the peanut butter dead were hovering in the room, and the audience collectively squirmed in discomfort. But we'd squirm a lot more by the time the hearing was over.
The Big Reveal: Parnell knew he was shipping tainted product
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the Chair of the Energy and Commerce committee, dropped a bombshell when he started reading e-mails that had been yanked off PCA prez Parnell's computer.
These were displayed on over-sized poster boards, projected on the flat screen TVs on the walls (above), and paper copies were handed out.
It was immediately clear that Parnell had been fully aware he was shipping salmonella-tainted product in tractor trailer trucks and 3,700 lb containers, and had engaged in a variety of nefarious behaviours, such as lab shopping, in order to get "better" test results. He had also tried to bargain with the FDA to allow him to send out even more peanut products after it was discovered that his Georgia plant was the source of the nationwide salmonella outbreak.
To remind: Under current law, there's no such thing as a mandatory product recall. All recalls are done voluntarily by even the most criminal producers. The audience wasn't exactly gasping in shock, as Parnell's other bad behaviour had already been all over the media, but it was pretty disconcerting to discover the blatant commerce-before-safety intentionality of Parnell's peanut butter pathology. This became another theme of the hearing, and was reiterated again and again.
Panel I: The Sorrow and The Pity, & Please Give Us An Expert Opinion On Something You know Nothing About
The hearing was divided into three separate panels, and the first was victim/witness statements. Jeffrey Almer of Minnesota spoke sadly of his mother's death, while his sisters cried quietly in the seats behind him. Dark haired, intense, Mr. Almer said calmly that he hoped Parnell would end up in jail, being forced to eat the poisonous swill he'd sold to the country. This seemed like a completely reasonable request, compared to the horribly painful death Mr. Almer's mother had suffered.
Next, a heart-wrenching video about Marler's dead client, Clifford Tousignant, was played on the flat-screen TVs; it was simply a series of family pictures, with a haunting piano sonata in the background. Audience members wiped away tears as they watched the happy pix from Mr. Tousignant's life; he was a triple purple heart veteran of the Korean War, and beloved by his huge family (he had six children, 14 grandchildren and 15 great grand children; Mr. Tousignant and a great-grandchild, in picture).
Lou Tousignant, Clifford's son, crossed his arms, and leaned forward on the witness table as he spoke intently about his father's last days. Neither he nor Jeffrey Almer knew their parents had died from salmonella until weeks after their deaths.
Marler's other client, Peter Hurley, a policeman from Oregon, spoke next. When Mr. Hurley's three-year old boy had gotten salmonella poisoning, the family doc made an improper diagnosis, and recommended that the ill child be fed his fave food--peanut butter crackers--to try to regain his strength after a monumental bout of vomiting and diarrhea. Luckily, the head epidemiologist in Oregon somehow got hold of the case, figured everything out, and complete tragedy was averted. Complete tragedy, that is, other than possible long-term health consequences for the Hurley child, the family's astronomical medical bills, and their enduring panic over performing the most basic human act--eating.
The second WTF? moment of the day
The proceedings got even odder when committee members started to question the victim/witness families. Each Rep had five minutes to grandstand, and each one embroidered on the same absurd topic: What would you, Mr. Innocent American Eater, have done differently to avoid your family member getting poisoned or killed? How would you, Mr. Regular American Eater, change the food safety system so other people don't get poisoned and killed? What do you, Mr. Victim of Avoidable Tragedy, think Congress should do to protect the food supply?
It was like asking Katrina survivors how high the levees should have been to avoid the flooding of New Orleans, and trying to sign them up to advise the Army Corps of Engineers simply because family members had drowned. It was like asking virgins for advice on creative sexual positions. Ladies and Gentlemen, it was like asking the dead how they'd been careless enough to let themselves get killed. It was head shakingly, appallingly misguided.
After the hearing, I cornered Marler with a question about this particular hearing tactic, still stunned over the inanity of it all: "What kind of outlandish bullshit was that, asking the families how they would've saved their parents from death by food? What kind of goddamn idiocy is that?!"
Marler was unphased by both the Rahm-type cussin' and the vehement tone of voice.
"The House members are government officials," Marler said. "They don't really know how to deal with emotion, so they do what they know best to avoid confrontation. They ask questions."
"How do you get away with asking questions all the time, and never actually doing anything!?!" I asked.
"Welcome to Washington," Marler said, and laughed ruefully.
Panel II: The Peanut Butter Perp Walk
Stewart Parnell had been hiding in a hole somewhere in the Rayburn building during the witness panel, but the pod of pro photographers in the hearing room leapt to their feet and mobbed him the second he shuffled into the hearing room, his head down, trying to hide behind both his lawyer and Sammy Lightsey. There was initially some confusion over which of the people filing in was actually Stewart Parnell, so the photogs bumrushed the entire line and shot everyone in it. It became clear when Parnell sat down behind his name tag at the witness table that he was actually the Superstar Peanut Butter Perp, and the committee members allowed the press to stick their huge telephoto lenses in his face and click away some more. Both Parnell and Lightsey looked as if they had a bad case of, er, salmonella poisoning as they were sworn in.
The next ten minutes were a masterpiece of stone walling, as Parnell and Lightsey both answered every question with the expected, same sentence: "Under the advice of my attorney, I respectfully request the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution."
The damning e-mails were read aloud, committee members asked if Parnell had "put profit before public health, and commerce before human life," and he continued to plead the fifth, since he's staring down jail time. Unfortunately, he'll probably only be convicted under some section of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which legislates interstate commerce, and may spend about five seconds in jail. Minnesota, where multiple salmonella deaths have occured, does not have a death penalty, but other states do; however, Parnell will never be convicted of murder. (In pic, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) chastises Parnell)
Finally, Rep. Walden, the genius propmaster, waved his jar of contaminated peanut products at Parnell and Lightsey and invited them to snack. When they declined, Subcommittee Chair Stupak dismissed them.
The photographers leapt to their feet again to get more shots, and the entire audience whipped out cell phones and cameras to do likewise. As Parnell and Lightsey filed out of the hearing room, shouting began in the hallway from other members of the media: Mr. Parnell! Stewart! Mr. Parnell! What do you have to say to the families of the victims? Hey Stewart, you poisoned kids! Care to comment? Stewart! (In pic, Parnell, at right, flees the hearing)
I slipped into the hallway to watch the mayhem, and somehow ran right in to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who'd been lurking around all day (making the proceedings even more surreal; he wasn't there for peanut butter, but had other business in the building).
Reporters continued to scream questions at the fleeing Parnell, and cameramen with giant shoulder mounted cams and still photographers with camera bags flying lurched after him and his posse as they tried to exeunt, stage left. The media mob followed them out the glass doors of the building and into the grand, columned courtyard in front of the Rayburn building.
The Peanut butter mafia scrambled down the steps toward the street, looking for their getaway car. It was an unseasonably warm day, and Parnell was visibly sweating. There was no car to be found, and Parnell and his minions took off across the street and over to the lawn of the Capitol, the media still in hot pursuit. Yep, it was just like being back home in Hollywood, only instead of chasing Britney Spears, the photogs were chasing Stewart Parnell.
Time to go back into the hearing, and watch the rest of Apocalypse Chow.
*Photo by Obama Foodorama
*Live blogging posts from the hearing are here and here and here. Also, it was tweeted here. *The video about salmonella victim Clifford Tousignant's life is here. The Oregonian news story about the Texas PCA plant is here.
*Documents from the Congressional hearing: *Chair Waxman's Opening Statement
- January 12, 2009 email from PCA Lynchburg Office to Sammy Lightsey, et al.
- February 10, 2009 letter from Michelle Pronto to Chairman Waxman and Chairman Stupak
- October 6, 2008 email from Stewart Parnell to Sammy Lightsey
- January 19, 2009 email from Stewart Parnell to Robert Neligan
- June 6, 2008 email from Stewart Parnell to Mary Wilkerson, et al.
- January 19, 2009 email from Stewart Parnell to Robert Neligan
- August 21, 2008 email from Stewart Parnell to Sammy Lightsey
- January 25, 2008 email from Michelle Pronto to Darlene Cowart, et al.
- November 2, 2006 email from Darlene Cowart to Stewart Parnell
- November 2, 2006 letter from Darlene Cowart to Stewart Parnell