Between September 1, 2008 and April 20, 2009, salmonella-tainted peanut butter originating from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) sickened 714 people across 46 states, contributing to nine deaths. Prior to the outbreak, former PCA assistant plant manager in Plainview, Texas, Kenneth Kendrick, had made multiple attempts to alert both state and federal officials to numerous public health violations he was witnessing. Following the outbreak, Kendrick worked with GAP and the consumer group, STOP Foodborne Illness, to blow the whistle – both on PCA’s dangerous practices, and the lack of timely response from officials who were supposed to be safeguarding the food supply.
Kenneth Kendrick served as assistant plant manager at the PCA plant from July 2006 through November 2006. Before the salmonella outbreak, Kendrick repeatedly reported to the Texas Department of Health incidences of rat infestation and feces in the product. Additionally, he reported a roof leak that allowed rainwater contaminated with bird feces to drip onto the peanuts. The Health Department did nothing, not even recognizing that the plant was operating without a license.
It took sickness and death, and Kendrick’s disclosures to bring about change. Although the widespread salmonella contamination was traced to PCA’s Georgia plant, it was Kendrick’s whistleblowing on Good Morning America that belied the company’s defense that the batch of peanut butter from the Georgia plant was an unexpected and isolated event. Kendrick made clear that PCA’s entire business was based upon risking the health of consumers in order to protect profits.
Kendrick’s whistleblowing was effective, but the costs have been high. PCA went bankrupt – causing economic dislocation and putting 300 people out of work. Some of these people vented their anger at Kendrick rather than PCA. On blogs, he was attacked for not speaking out sooner. His wife left him, former fellow employees cursed him publicly, and he lost his job – most likely because of his whistleblowing about a previous employer. Not surprisingly, in the face of this personal hell, he went silent for a period of time. But he recently commented that he would do it all over again if confronted with the same situation.
The State of Texas, embarrassed, has at last taken action. The Department of Health conducted a statewide probe, discovering that 355 companies were manufacturing and selling food without a state license. Those enterprises previously escaped health inspections altogether. Had the State taken even the most rudimentary review of any of Kendrick’s complaints, Texas would have discovered the plant was unlicensed – which might have prevented a tragedy. According to the Texas officials, the offending companies are now complying with the licensing requirements – and will be subject to effective and meaningful health inspections.
Although Kendrick's whistleblowing was effective, he faced much ostracism for speaking out, and was unable to find a job due to his truth-telling. He has, however, received much compassion after sharing his experiences at various public appearances. Kendrick spoke on a panel at GAP's food whistleblower conference in February 2011 (watch video of him speaking starting at minute 19:40). He is also a featured speaker on GAP's American Whistleblower Tour. At the University of Texas at Austin, Kendrick shared his story with students, many of who went out of their way to offer specific assistance to support him and validate his efforts. He also spoke at Auburn University (coverage of the AU event here and here) and is scheduled to speak at the South Texas College of Law.