Friday, July 30, 2010

If You Must Recall, Please Do So Loudly

Let's say that I am a pet food manufacturer, and some of my products are being linked to outbreaks of salmonella (among people feeding my products to their pets). I announce a recall.

How loudly do you want me to announce that?

Pretty damn loudly, I'd think.

Today's New York Times carries an article by William Neuman, reporting on a frozen-mouse recall. Apparently frozen mice are popular among reptile owners: just thaw and feed (I like snakes and other reptiles, but I am suppressing considerable squeamishness here. May I just say, Ewwww.).

MiceDirect, based in Cleveland GA, sells mice (from "small pinkies" to "jumbo adults"), rats ("pinkies" to "mammoth") and chicks. (Sorry, I'm having another squeam moment here. Deep breath.)

The website currently carries a "Recall Notice: May 2009 - July 23, 2010" hot link right at the top of its home page, but that has not been the case for long.

According to the Times report, "The company's recall notice was not prominently posted on its Web site until Thursday. And neither the company's site nor the F.D.A.'s site gave clear instructions on what to do with mice that customers still had." (emphasis added)

A reptile owner, who "bought 10,500 mice from MiceDirect early this year", when contacted by the Times said that "he had not heard about the recall until a reporter called him Wednesday."

Salmonella linked to MiceDirect was first reported in Great Britain in August 2008, and in the United States in January of this year. A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control said that British officials informed the CDC of the outbreaks in 2009; the FDA (which regulates pet food companies) was also informed.

An FDA spokesperson, on the other hand, said that her agency was "checking to see if it had a record of the 2009 contact from the CDC" and was not told of the American outbreak until May of this year. In early July, officials of both agencies conducted an inspection at MiceDirect, and the FDA informed the company on 21 July that tests of the product and plants had found salmonella. Two days later, the company agreed to a recall.

Don't you think that MiceDirect should have taken a proactive stance after the first, British reports of salmonella?

So do I, especially in light of the fact that, to date, "more than 400 have people have fallen ill there, about two-thirds of them ...children under 10." An epidemiologist at the Health Protection Agency's Center for Infections noted that "although shipments of tainted mice were halted last year, people continue to get sick there.... perhaps because snake owners, unaware of the dangers, continue to use mice kept in their freezers."

Since pet owners have the mice delivered directly to their doors, the company has their contact information. They should have reached out to them immediately, loudly, and persistently.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

BigFood -- The Gift That Keeps Giving, Alas

Assuming, of course, that you write a blog about ethics in business. Or the lack thereof.

I've written twice already about food rules (here and here) and about the ways major companies like Kellogg's, ConAgra, and McDonald's skirt the minimal rules that are out there in their marketing to children.

There had been some indication that the Food & Drug Administration was finally getting tough, but according to today's New York Times, the progress has stalled. William Neuman writes,
A report to Congress from several federal agencies — expected to include strict nutritional definitions for the sorts of foods that could be advertised to children — is overdue, and officials say it could be months before it is ready. Some advocates fear the delay could result in the measure being stripped of its toughest provisions.
While I'm fine with arguing about the specifics of the proposed new rules (the "level for saturated fats would be set so low it would exclude peanut butter," for example), I'm dismayed to see how this administration is caving to big business.

My favorite quote from the business side was from Dan Jaffee, executive vice president for government relations for the Association of National Advertisers:
The proposal was extraordinarily restrictive and would virtually end all food advertising as it’s currently carried out to kids under 18 years of age.
And that would be so terrible, Mr. Jaffee, why?

It's not the 10-year-olds, after all, who are out there in the supermarkets buying Froot Loops (12 grams of sugar per serving, compared to proposed limit of 8 grams). It's their parents. So why do I look for stronger government controls rather than tell the parents to do their job and practice saying, "NO!"

First of all, let's be realistic here. I'm not suggesting that Froot Loops be banned. Nor am I suggesting that all advertising be banned. But poor eating habits and childhood obesity are serious problems, and I think that we should be helping parents address these issues, not throwing up libertarian roadblocks all over the place.

Are American parents all spineless wusses? Hardly. But many of them are tired. They are picking their battles and caving because of the "Please, Mommy, Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease" factor, and the "If-you-don't-I'll-have-a-temper-tantrum-right-here-in-the-store" factor (I pulled those stunts myself as a child.).

And why are the children pulling these stunts? Because marketers know exactly how to play on children's credulity (I still remember the disappointment of realizing that "Sea Monkeys" -- aka brine shrimp -- didn't look like the cartoon images on the back of my comic book) and tastes (the bolder and brighter the colors, the more alluring).

Moreover, even if the advertising were limited only to children's television programming, it might be easier for parents to control their children's exposure. But it isn't. It's everywhere. It's in movies (hello, product placement and tie-ins!); it's in magazines and billboards; it's on the television screens in doctors' waiting rooms, for crying out loud.

Advertising directly to children (defined as under 12) is limited in many EU countries, and forbidden in Norway and Sweden, and in the province of Quebec. That's not a reason why the US should do the same ... but it's not a reason to oppose restrictions or a ban either.

Let's give parents real help to raise a generation of healthy kids.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Why Would You Treat the Honest as Though They Were Dishonest...

...instead of simply firing the @$$ of the dishonest?

The first time I heard about this latest corporate hoop, I laughed -- how ludicrous, I thought.

The second time, I thought, Blog post!

Even with "family-friendly" companies, it is now apparently commonplace to ask new employees to provide marriage certificates and "proof" that the marriage is still active, if they want to sign up for health-care benefits for their spouses. (For children's coverage, birth certificates are required, but apparently not proof that the child is still around.)

Clearly, there were people out there gaming the system in one way or another, getting coverage for those who weren't entitled to such coverage. (And people wonder why I'm in favor of national health insurance. Single-payer, too.)

It seems to me that if such gaming were so serious, the solution is to let employees know that lying about beneficiaries and their relationships to same is a firing offense.

You catch 'em out, you fire 'em.

Sadly, it's not the first time that I've found corporations -- which are usually quick enough to fire without cause (a.k.a. massive layoffs) -- unwilling to step up and fire for cause.

In a previous life, when I joined one company and asked about company credit cards, I was told, "Oh we don't do that anymore. We used to have them, but some of the field reps abused the privilege, so they were all taken away."

In other words, the honest were punished as well as the dishonest.

I know that the corporations will argue that it's because of our increasingly litigious society: that it's easier to pile on extra hoops for everyone to jump through than to risk lawsuits for an unfair dismissal.

So here again you have the situation where the honest are treated as though they were dishonest.

Easier maybe, but hardly more ethical.