Peanut Butter Corporation of America: Ethics and Knowledge Integration


In the period of 2008 to 2009, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) identified the Peanut Butter Corporation of America (PCA) as the source of a food-borne disease outbreak that was a cause of illness and death in the United States. The peanut butter and peanut butter paste from PCA’s plant in Georgia and Texas was discovered to be contaminated with pathogenic salmonella bacteria.

This triggered a massive food recall that targeted butter, butter paste, and any product linked to the butter or paste. The manufacturing plant in Georgia operated with the knowledge of health authorities who did health inspections regularly, which the plant passed. However, the case is different for the plant in Texas where there is no evidence of health inspections because the plant operated without the knowledge of health authorities in Texas.


The following are the facts about the PCA’s peanut butter food poisoning.

  • According to the testimony of Caroline Smith Dewall, the American congress is worried about food safety in the country. This is evidenced by the number of times it has had to conduct hearings as a follow-up to food-borne outbreaks including the one caused by the PCA (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.1). The results from the hearings revealed that there are flaws in the manufacturer’s processes of food alongside flaws in the oversights by the Food and Drug Administration (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.1). Caroline Smith Dewall’s testimony goes on to reveal that the Government’s Accountability Office is not impressed with the country’s food security system (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.2). In this state of affairs the office has had to place food at its high-risk category for three years in a row (Government Accountability Office, 2009, p.3)
  • In twelve of its tests done from June 2007 PCA’s Georgia manufacturing plant detected the presence of salmonella bacteria in its products (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.3). However, the plant disregarded these results opting instead to redo the tests again. This second round of tests suggested the absence of salmonella and therefore the plant cleared the products as fit for human consumption. The FDA through different tests carried out by Georgia state inspectors was made aware that the plant was guilty of various violations (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p3).
  • In April 2008, a shipment of PCA’s peanuts intended for Canada ended up back in the U.S after it was declared unfit for food in Canada (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.3). In the U.S, PCA based on its tests pushed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to clear the peanuts for sale. The FDA not convinced with the precision of their tests did not give in to their demands and eventually, the shipment had to be destroyed. The FDA did however not follow up with further inspections of the company to ascertain the actual cause of the rejection of the shipment in Canada.
  • PCA’s contaminated products were linked to 100 PCA’s consignee firms and eventually into people’s homes (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, 3).
  • Salmonella Typhimirium was the condition that the consumers of the contaminated PCA’s products suffered from (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.3). The outbreak that started in September of 2008 was widespread in the US affecting consumers in 43 states. The PCA peanut butter is linked as of February 14, 2008 as the cause of 9 deaths and 636 illnesses (Miroff & Layton, 2009 p.4).
  • The salmonella scare as the food poisoning outbreak was named led to the taking off of more than 2000 food products that include peanuts as one of their ingredients (Miroff and Layton, 2009, p.10). This precarious turn of events led the company to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy even as it faced more and more lawsuits claims from people affected by the outbreak (Miroff and Layton, 2009, p.1).
  • The salmonella bacteria are of the genus salmonella that is named after the American pathologist Daniel Elmer Salmon (, 2010, p.2 – 3). The bacterium is known to be rod-shaped and non-oxygen requiring and the pathogenic ones are known to cause mild to serious infections called Salmenellosis (, 2010, p.2 – 3). Salmonella Typhimirum, typhoid and paratyphoid fever are classified as Salmellosis. Salmonellae as the bacteria are referred to in plural are known to inhabit and breed in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals and are a chief source of food poisoning as evidenced by the PCA’s peanut butter food poisoning outbreak (, 2010, p.2 – 3). Chicken, eggs, unpasteurized milk, ground meat, and fish are the most common reservoirs of salmonella (, 2010, p.2 – 3). The most common symptoms of salmonella food poisoning include diarrhea, vomiting, and painful headaches (, 2010, p.2 – 3). However not all salmonella bacteria are harmful, it is a fact that there are over 2200 species of salmonella that are known to exist in animals without causing disease(,2010, p.2 – 3)

Analysis of ethics

Critical thinking skills are aimed at helping an individual or organization act purely objectively and rationally (Kurland, 2000, p.1). According to Kurland the characteristics of critical thinking are rationality, self-awareness, honesty, open-mindedness, discipline, and judgment (2000, p.1). Clearly, PCA’s food poisoning case reveals a lack of ignorance of the concept of critical thinking in the organization and with the FDA.

Take the Georgia manufacturing plant as a case in point, twelve times, they test products for the presence of salmonella. If it had been applied, the notion of critical thinking through the skill of rationality would have suggested that the plant follow up on the evidence to where it leads (, n.d.). By doing this, they would have found the best explanation for the presence of the bacteria and help reduce the damage and loss of life that occurred unnecessarily. They, however, opted to ignore the results of the tests and do a second round of tests to obtain a negative result, which as they later found out was the wrong thing to do (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.3).

The FDA similarly fell into the same pit, as it was aware of various violations committed by the PCA’s Georgia manufacturing plant as well as a shipment of PCA’s peanuts denied entry into Canada on the basis that it was unfit for food (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2009, p.3). The FDA instead of using the evidence that had been made available to them to perform thorough inspections of PCAs plants it just put the matter to rest. This action taken by the FDA indicates either a lack of knowledge in critical thinking or a negligence of the same (Kurland, 2000, p.1).

The PCA’s Georgia manufacturing plant and the FDA further exhibit a deficiency of the critical thinking skills of honesty, open-mindedness, discipline and judgment because their response to the tests suggest selfishness, self-deception, a lack of precision and comprehensiveness and a lack of recognition of the weight of evidence. For the plant in Texas that opted, to operate without the prior knowledge of the health authorities, it would most likely have saved lives and avoided illnesses if it had applied critical thinking skills. In this way, selfish motives, self-deception and snap decision-making that are the likely causes of their downfall would have been avoided enabling proper judgment to prevail thus avoid a catastrophe that was in the making.

Ethics form the basis on which a person or an organization determines which action is fit to take as a response to the various situations, which they encounter (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 2010, p.2). Ethics constitute the standards of behavior that promote proper existence in a community or a society (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 2010, p.2).

It is the case that a decision making process founded on ethics promises good decision making. It is therefore imperative for an ethical person or organization to match its standards with a proper ethical decision making model. Examples of ethical decision making models as given by Wellington (2009) include the Resolved Method by Jonathan Kranky, Laura Nash’s Twelve Questions, Michael McDonald’s A Framework of Ethical Decision Making and Thomas Bivins’s The Ethical Worksheet among others. The FDA, PCA’s manufacturing plant in Georgia and Texas show a lack and ignorance of ethics and a proper ethical decision making models. An ethical organization should rid itself of the kind of flaws shown by PCA and the FDA. Exposing peoples to such a danger just because of making sales is clearly a lack of ethics by any standards.

An ethical decision making model that would be apt for the PCA would be the five steps of reasoning by the Josephson institute of ethics. The first step in the ethical decision making model is clarification (Anonymous, n.d.). During clarification you identify clearly what is to be decided, formulate alternatives and options and then weigh each of the options by determining the ethical principles and values of each (Marshal, 2007,p.1). The second step in the ethical decision making model is evaluation which includes various task (Marshal, 2007, p.2).

The first task in the evaluation procedure is to identify which of the options from the clarification step require a sacrifice of ethical principles. The second task is to ensure that you can make the distinction between solid facts and something else e.g. desires, theories, beliefs etc. The third task in the evaluation procedure is to weigh the credibility of sources to avoid biasness and selfish gains. The fourth task in the evaluation procedure is to weigh the effect of each option on the stakeholder. The third step in the ethical decision making model is to decide and includes a series of steps to be undertaken (Marshal, 2007, p.3).

Based on your conscience evaluate other feasible alternatives. Determine which values are key to the decision making and which are least important. Determine the biggest beneficiaries and losers of a decision made. Visualize what the situation will be in a worst-case scenario. Determine whether a change of goals or methods can result in a loss of ethics. Finally find out whether you are treating others, as you would like to be treated, if you are okay with the publishing of your reasoning and decision and whether or not you would be comfortable if your children were observing you. The fourth step in the ethical decision model is to implement and it comprises of two tasks (Marshal, 2007, p.4).

It is very important to develop a plan that will guide the implementation of the decision. Limitation of risks as well as costs in a bid to maximize economic return should be taken as a very important consideration in the implementation process. The fifth step in the ethical decision model is monitor and modify and it comprised of three tasks (Marshal, 2007, p.5). You will have to come up with a way through which you can monitor the effects of the decision. You will also at this stage need to be prepared to revise the plan or if needed explore a different course of action (Marshal, 2007, p.5). Finally, at this stage you will have to keep yourself informed as well as make use of the information.

Organizational theory in an organization is undertaken to identify the themes that propel problem solving, maximizing efficiency and productivity and taking care of the needs of the stakeholders (Barzilai, n.d.). These subtopics put together work to device an organizational structure /culture where the individuals in the organization are motivated and understand their roles and work together in groups with proper communications channels and leadership (Barzilai, n.d.).

Broadly, organizational theory can be categorized into classical, neoclassical and modern organizational theory. The classical organizational theory can further be subdivided into scientific management approach, Webster’s bureaucratic approach and the administrative theory (Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, n.d., 7). The administrative classical theory has its basis on management-oriented principles. It addresses management at five levels that are planning, organizing, training, commanding and coordinating functions (Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, n.d., 10).

The neoclassical organizational theory strongly recommends that in order to determine productivity in an organization, individual and group behavior as well as human relations must be taken into account. In the systems of modern approach to organizational theory, the organization is taken as a system made up of smaller subsystems and these subsystems have to be interrelated and mutually dependent on one another (Waldron, Vsanthakumar & Arulraj, n.d.). With the socio-technical modern organizational theory the organization is taken a to consist of a social system, technical system and its environment (Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, n.d., 14).

The socio-technical approach emphasizes on interaction and proper balancing among these three in order to realize effective functioning of the organization. The contingency ( or structural) modern organaisational approach to organizational theory works to boost the effectiveness of an organization through defining different relationships between the organization and its environment (Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, n.d., 15).

For varrying environments, varrying relationships will be taylored with respect to the organisation with the reverse also being true. Based on the above discussion on organization theory, PCA’s peanut butter food poisoning saga leaves one to ask himself or herself whether or not the management of PCA worked under any organizational theory. This is because if any of the approaches discussed above were applied by the PCA then it clearly have aided in the detection of the problem and thus help preserve a better relationship between PCA and its environment, which includes its consumers of its products and its consignee firms. This lack of organizational structure is more pronounced by PCA’s Texas manufacturing plant, which somehow was content with working without the knowledge of health officials there.

An appropriate organizational theory for PCA would have been the Webster’s bureaucratic classical approach. This approach a discussed above will enable PCA to be more aware of the society or community it is in and the one that is consuming its products. With such awareness, it can formulate a structure on which it will operate on to not only better its welfare but also that of its consumers. Such a structure should be seen to aid specialization, which in turn can help in detection and problem solving at an advanced stage.

This approach will also enable predictability and stability through which the organization can monitor its progress and be able to make projections in accordance to its long term goals. Through this approach, rationality will be injected into the organization, which will promote critical thinking and a culture of ethics. This approach also allows for democracy, which ultimately empowers the society and thus discouraging manipulations of any kind from the organization.

Knowledge integration enables the fitting together of different ideas into a single structure that is coherent (Clemens, 2004, p.4). By achieving knowledge, integration an individual or organization is able to, first, make use of available knowledge to formulate solutions to address various problems or challenges that they are faced with during growth. (Clemens, 2004, p.3) Secondly, knowledge integration helps to expose underlying assumptions and inconsistencies through reconciling conflicting ideas (Clemens, 2004, p.5). Thirdly, knowledge integration helps an individual or organization to identify areas with incoherence quite effectively, uncertainty and in disagreement; it does his through synthesizing different perspectives (Clemens, 2004, p.6). Finally, by weaving different ideas together knowledge integration achieves a whole that is better than the total of its part (Clemens, 2004, 7).

Good leadership is important in an organization as it helps to bring the individuals together and lead them to achieve the set goals. With a good leader, it means that right decisions will be made through an ethical model and thus promote professionalism. There are various leadership theories that have been put forward that are applicable in running an organization successfully. The Contingency leadership theory was developed by Fred Fiedler and it supposes that by addressing; leader-member relations, task structure, and position power, you are at the same time attending to the effectiveness of a leader. The path-goal theory was developed by Robert House and it stresses on increasing subordinate motivation through taking into account their ideas and making it clear to them how they can perform at their best.

The leader-style theory was developed by Vroom and Yetton and guides leaders in making suitable decisions and also provides a measure of the extent to which subordinates can be included in the decision making process. The advantage of this style is that subordinates are committed to the organizations objectives and it encourages leader-subordinate interaction. Judging PCA’s conduct before and after the food poisoning, can be seen that there is a lack of good leadership. For instance, the Texas manufacturing plant operated without the knowledge of health authorities this is a show of decision-making and a loss of proper leadership. The FDA similarly was aware of violations committed by the PCA but it did not act decisively which is another show of lack of good leadership in the organization.

Continuous quality Improvement refers to the formal approach applied in analyzing performance as well as improving it (Duke University Medical Center, 2005, p.1). The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) system and the Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA) are two underlying concepts of continuous quality improvement.

According to the article Lee, et al. (1999), the American Statistician Walter Shewart devised a four phase conceptual framework for identifying a problem within a system (1). This was a Plan-Do-Check-Act systematic procedure; it is designed in such a way that as you progress through the cycle you encounter a series of phases. Each phase is equipped with a list of requirements that have to be fulfilled before proceeding to the next stage. The cycle deals with a single problem at a time until the cycle is completed. According to Lee, et al. (1999) the idea behind the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle was furthered by Edwards Deming in the famous ‘the Deming Wheel’ in the 1950s. The cycle was initially integrated into programs to enhance efforts within a process. The cycle can be used as a utility tool in planning where actions are to be practical and without fail sensitive to the plan.

Such a planning should therefore allow progress while posting improvement in results. The Plan-Do-Check-Act system is also useful at team building level as it helps to gauge the improvement for the solutions adopted by an organization as well as provides a way to weigh among alternatives the most feasible. In the cycle, the plan stage involves identifying fault issues and then device remedial interventions to be adopted so as to fast track operations. The Do stage involves piloting solutions at small doses while keen to results from different alternative interventions to every problem. Measures taken should not stall the operations.

Check stage diagnosis efficacy of each intervention made in the Do stage and identifies those that merit. Act stage involves full fledge adoption of the merited interventions. This may need to effect adjustments at different levels of operations. If at the Do stage, the pilot is not effective then retreat to the plan stage to formulate new solutions. Complete implementation of the cycle on repeated occasions for all the problems deemed to provide continuous improvement for operations.

FMEA is an abbreviation for Failure Modes and Effect Analysis. According to Dovach (n.d.), it is an analytic activity carried out on a product, service or process in order to know its strengths and weaknesses, deal with a potential problem before it occurs and ensure that it meets the set requirements. FMEA has its origin at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the USA where it was used as a risk analysis and mitigation technique, however more recently, it has become widespread in industries being used to attain process improvement (Sarma, n.d).

FMEA is a vital tool to project teams and companies as a whole who are faced with questions like how a failure can occur, the effect of such a failure on a system and what actions can be taken to counter such potential failures happen as it provides a suitable approach to developing remedies to these questions (Dovach, n.d.). The functions of FMEA include predicting design or process related failure modes and by doing so works to ensure that, set requirements for a process or product are met.

Secondly, FMEA tests find out the effect and severity of a given failure mode. Thirdly, FMEAs pin point the cause and work out the probability of occurrence of a failure mode. Fourthly, it identifies a control and weighs its effectiveness; it quantifies each associated risk and ultimately arranges the risks in order of priorities. Finally, it develops and documents action plans that appear to reduce the risks involved.

Application of either PDCA or FMEA would have provided a systematic way through which the PDA would have identified the flaws in its system and therefore make the necessary corrections. This would have ensured that the end-product of their manufacturing system meets the set standards.

The importance of the concepts discussed above is overwhelming and therefore there is a need for the formulation of a legal framework that offers incentives aimed at encouraging the application of these concepts in organizations. Such a framework if put in place will safeguard the welfare of the people and the organizations that serves them. The PCA filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which to some was seen as a way to counter the rising number of lawsuit claims it was facing. Loss of life is tragic and no amount of money can compensate it thus it is of fundamental importance that governments formulate and pass the necessary legislature that will make this concepts part and parcel of the organizations in a country.

Organizational Recommendations for Prevention

In order to prevent such an incident from occurring again it is important that organizations fully appreciate and understand the importance of critical thinking. It can clearly be seen that PCA and the FDA did not apply critical thinking skills and thus could not stop a looming food-borne disease outbreak.

Another important concept that should be natured and laid emphasis on in organizations is that of ethics. Ethics will produce ethical individuals and ethical organizations and thus high levels of professionalism will be observed in the various organizational processes. These ethics should be marched with a sound ethical decision-making model that will steer good decision-making.

Organizational theory is also another important concept that should be fully utilized by organizations. Application of the various organizational theories will ensure that an organization identifies its goals and effectively works towards achieving these goals. For example, if the organizations goal is to manufacture safe products for human consumption it does this efficiently.

Knowledge integration is another concept that is important in preventing outbreaks of the kind caused by the PCA’s contaminated products. Through knowledge integration, available knowledge can be made use of to detect the cause’s flaws and formulate a coherent structure with a clear objective. Knowledge integration simply prevents clashing of ideas opting to weave the ideas together that shape up tomorrow.

The concept of good leadership is another important recommendation that is imperative in preventing future outbreaks such as the PCA’s food poisoning. PCA and its Texas and Georgia plant exhibit lack of good leadership as shown by their conduct before and after the disaster. You cannot put monetary value in a person’s life.

Another important concept critical in preventing similar scenarios in the future is that of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement implemented through FMEA tests, PDCA cycle ensures that flaws are early enough, and this guarantee that the products produced by a company meet the set requirements of production.


Food is fundamental or principle to human existence however as seen in the PCA food poisoning case it can cause illness and death if mishandled or mismanaged (Deep & Dani, 2009, p.2). Negligence or lack of these concepts has already proofed fatal through a food poisoning outbreak that could have been controlled if these concepts were applied with a high degree of seriousness (NHTSA, n.d.). The outbreak has affected consumers of PCA’s products and the company itself filed for bankruptcy as it faced lawsuits for claims as well as being investigated for criminal charges. Therefore, other organizations should learn from these incidents and apply the above concepts lest they find themselves in the same situation.


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