The American Institute of Baking faces an existential threat as the result of its involvement with the audit of Good Manufacturing Practices at the Blakely, Georgia, plant of the Peanut Corporation of America. Everyone in grain-based foods, which the A.I.B. has served so well for 90 years, must have cringed on reading news dispatches concerning conditions in this plant and its apparently reckless shipping of ingredients that are blamed for hundreds of sick people and for nine deaths. At a time when corporate malfeasance, whether by a Wall Street giant or by a peanut processing plant in the rural South, creates waves of media and public outrage, the A.I.B. finds itself an alleged "poster boy," an easily-identified perpetrator and supposed puppet of corporate evil doers threatening the safety of American food.
As an organization dedicated to fostering through education, research and its plant audit services the progress of the American food industry, the A.I.B. is ill prepared to deal with the public relations assaults it has faced as the result of media and congressional witch-hunting. When word first came of its relation to the P.C.A. plant, the Institute elected a low-key approach, involving polite responses to media and governmental inquiries, including subpoenas. It backed away from aggressively defending the role it has played in this unfolding tragedy.
The Institute rightly or wrongly stuck with the practice of not revealing publicly the results of inspections and similarly refrained from pointing out that its audits are not meant to catch operators who seek to deceive. As so often happens in an exploding drama like this, publicity got out of hand. Photographs on the front pages of newspapers and television shots portrayed AIB International, the audit-conducting subsidiary, as either a fool that issued a "Superior" rating to this rat-infested peanut plant or whose inspector simply overlooked what was going on due to friendship with the plant manager. This was particularly so as the new U.S. president and congressional drama-seekers plunged in, making a serious catastrophe at a single plant into an event that prompted calls for immediate action on new food safety legislation and administration.
Once this snowball started rolling, there was little the A.I.B. could do to correct or deny all the erroneous allegations. It is difficult to conceive the costs of changing the minds of people worrying about the safety of peanut butter. Instead, the Institute has wisely elected to call attention to new safety programs it has put in place, yes well before all of this harsh publicity hit, to strengthen its audits and to change practices that might have diminished the current terrible pain. In response to the P.C.A. incident, the A.I.B. is making a number of additional wise changes, including noting on certificates whether inspections were unannounced or scheduled in advance.
Yet, this is horrific pain for the A.I.B., not unlike an illness experienced by a human being whose life seems threatened. Revenues from the third-party audits provided by AIB International to food companies around the world and in almost every sector of food manufacturing are the lifeblood of the A.I.B. programs in education and research. Without these revenues, the Institute, operating from headquarters in Manhattan, Kansas, will not survive, save on a dramatically reduced scale. Baking stands to be the ultimate loser in the event that either through loss of business or government fiat the audit business of AIB International does not continue.
The help the Institute needs most urgently, yes as a matter of life or death, is the enthusiastic support of its core member companies in baking. Baking companies large and small must not just internalize their backing of A.I.B. programs, but must find a way of speaking out to declare their enthusiasm for the Institute and to insist it has contributed to the safety, the quality and the excellence of the food supply. This is what the A.I.B. must have if it is to continue as an essential cog in the framework that makes grain-based foods such a fine business.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, April 21, 2009, starting on Page 7. Click