Peanut scandal sends a safety warning to cosmetics firms

By Guy Montague-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Cosmetics

The scandalous outbreak of salmonella in peanuts flashes up a warning signal about attitudes to risk and safety that cosmetic manufacturers ignore at their peril.

So far the contamination of products made by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) has been linked to six deaths, left 600 people sick and triggered one of the biggest product recalls in history.

The affair has also left behind a trail of corporate irresponsibility that would have been difficult to imagine three months ago.

In an email made public at a Congressional hearing last week, the PCA president Stewart Parnell reacted to news that a batch of peanut meal had tested positive for salmonella, telling a plant manager:“We need to discuss this…the time lapse, besides the cost is costing us huge $$$$$.”

The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) is the perpetrator of a tragedy that reflects a failure to properly prioritize risk in modern business.

In the single-minded pursuit of profit, banks failed to adequately assess the risks they were taking on and are now left with toxic assets that have brought the global financial system to its knees.

In cosmetics, it is not toxic assets but toxic chemicals that manufacturers must be wary of. Beauty companies must learn from the mistakes made in the food and banking industries.

In the current economic climate, temptation to cut corners must be great when cost-cutting drives are launched and re-launched. Money spent that does not directly contribute to turnover is first to the guillotine in a recession but failure to invest in safety testing and risk management could have catastrophic results.

Companies must thoroughly assess the safety of ingredients and ensure that risks are controlled throughout the supply chain.

The hands-off regulatory framework in the US means that the onus is on cosmetic manufacturers to take responsibility and properly assess the safety of the products they sell.

Companies can be assured that any slip-ups will gain widespread coverage in the press. The public is bombarded with an ever increasing number of horror stories about harmful chemicals lurking in handbags and bathroom cabinets.

In the UK, the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) estimates that the number of people who have read cosmetic scare stories in the country has doubled from 14 percent in 2005 to 34 percent today.

Many of these reports amount to little more than scaremongering about toxic ingredients not even used in cosmetics, but occasionally there are genuine scandals that do untold damage to the reputation of the industry.

For example, the news that a Chinese company in 2005 was selling beauty products in Europe and the US made with collagen harvested from executed prisoners, would have hardly endeared consumers to the cosmetics industry.

Reassuringly there have been no ethical or health scandals in the beauty industry on the scale of the recent salmonella outbreak from peanuts - yet. To keep it that way, companies must be vigilant when it comes to safety and risk and be attentive to the attitudes and practices of their suppliers and partners.

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