Volkswagen and the food industry

by Morton Sosland
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In one of the most telling of coincidences relating both directly and remotely to the food industry, word came several weeks ago, just hours apart, of the prison sentences handed down in the Peanut Corp. of America case and the disclosure that Volkswagen AG had admitted installing software in its cars to provide deceptive readings of pollution. Sentences extending to 28 years for the 61-year-old head of the peanut business and 20 years for his 56-year-old brother were deemed appropriate for their plotting to ship peanuts contaminated with Salmonella into regular food channels, which resulted in several deaths. Yes, the prison terms stand as warning enough about criminal actions. But the Volkswagen story presents its own special case about the dangers of trying to work around compliance with laws that might be deemed onerous.

Of course, the jailed officers in the peanut case who were given sentences longer than ever before handed down for such food-related violations had been found guilty in a trial by jury. In the newly-discovered Volkswagen case, formal charges have not yet been filed but plenty of lawyers have become involved in what is likely to be a plethora of government and civil accusations against one of the world’s largest car manufacturers. Particularly telling in the Volkswagen matter is how the company up to this event had been viewed as a model of corporate excellence, as a business that had risen to the pinnacle of respect as it sought to become the world’s largest auto manufacturer.

As easy as it may be to say that comparison of what Volkswagen does to food manufacturing have no basis in reality, it is not difficult to note how what the auto engineers devised may easily be compared to moving contaminated peanuts into human consumption. Feeling the pressure of new emission regulations issued by the U.S. government and by governments in Europe and elsewhere, the auto company’s engineers devised a “defeat” mechanism in the car’s software systems. In effect, the mechanism limits how much emission a car being tested produces in order to achieve compliance when, in fact, actual emissions are much heavier, violating the mandated limits by a hefty margin.

Such a system is particularly useful in an industry where regulators have left it to manufacturers to measure compliance. Auto manufacturers have been expected to determine how each model complies with the limits, making it all the more appealing to work the deception within the company. In the food industry, each company is responsible for the safety and, yes, the quality of its products, with only intense investigations, as in the peanut case, prompted by an outbreak of illness and even deaths.

If one outcome of the Volkswagen affair is tightening of inspection rules to cars, it is tempting to wonder how that might affect inspections by federal agencies in industries like food where little has been done so far. Related to the peanut case are federal standards imposed on grain grading, an apparatus that has worked for years but which is often viewed as a costly penalty on the grain industry.

Of the many comments prompted by Volkswagen, one that rings especially loud is what a London writer described as the three most dangerous words in business: “Everyone does it.” No one has yet alleged that all auto manufacturers program their computer systems to limit emissions for deception. It is the possibility of such claims that are chilling. No one has reason even to think such an allegation about food in the wake of the peanut trial and sentencing, but even awareness of compliance problems may raise concerns. Now that the Volkswagen affair is unfolding, with billions of euros in losses already provided for, top corporate executives departing and no one even venturing to guess all the likely pain, the need for being strictly in compliance should be foremost on the minds of every food industry person.

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