March 08, 2009

Peanut Butter and Deviance

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Did you hear about the peanut butter recalls? The disgusting conditions at the Peanut Corporation of America? The company’s factory is closed, but only after it shipped peanut butter that had been infiltrated with rats and cockroaches, according to former employees. Workers told journalists that managers insisted that the batches be shipped regardless of quality, because the company would lose too much money otherwise. (Click here to watch a news report about Peanut Corp.)

Hearing about this incident reminded me of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, about poor conditions in the meatpacking industry. Like the peanut butter factory, rats were routinely ground into the meat in Sinclair’s book. I read this book in high school and still remember the chapter when a worker got sucked into the equipment and became part of the product.

This exposé led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which meant that the federal government would inspect food producing plants for safety. Reading The Jungle about eighty years after this landmark legislation, I believed that things had really changed from the old days, and that the food my family bought at the grocery store would never be as dangerous as it was before Congress passed this and other laws.

My high school self would be shocked to read the recall notice that I saw at the bottom of my grocery receipt in early February, warning about a particular product which I had purchased weeks before, and by then had long since eaten. I won’t mention the brand of the product of peanut butter flavored snacks, but it markets its products as healthy and wholesome and uses images from nature in its packaging.

Perhaps after reading The Jungle I needed to believe that the gross things in the book could never happen so I didn’t need to worry about what I ate. Not only did I believe in that food producers would follow the law, but I presumed that basic morality would prevent companies from selling food they knew was tainted.

Why would a company knowingly sell tainted food? Sociologists call this elite deviance, behavior that violates moral, ethical, or legal standards for the benefit of a corporate or government entity. Sociologist David R. Simon argues that elite deviance is committed by those at the highest levels of power, and often causes physical, financial, or moral harm. While we frequently hear of people in power ripping off the public and sometimes even wiping them out financially, elite deviance can be hazardous to public health and safety too.

Power is a central feature of elite deviance; it is what enables people like accused Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff to have access to billions of dollars in the first place. Simon details how those involved in elite deviance often know and influence people in high places. In Madoff’s case, he was once chair of the National Association of Securities Dealers and therefore knew securities laws well enough to evade them. His reputation seems to have also deterred the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from following through on the many investigations started into his firm’s dealings.

Elite deviance tends to yield relatively minor penalties, if any. Peanut Corp. has filed for bankruptcy, so it may not end up paying any fines for the salmonella outbreak that resulted. Limited liability laws mean that in some instances individuals cannot be held legally responsible for corporate behavior. Criminal charges clip_image008for deaths or physical injury that resulted from elite deviance are unusual too.

Simon describes a “cloak of secrecy” that many elites in the highest positions of authority can use to hide their wrongdoing. Corporations can hire public relations firms to try and counter claims against them and revamp their image. Or they can simply change their name. After the many tobacco lawsuits, Phillip Morris became Altria. Blackwater, a military contractor under scrutiny for allegations of improper behavior in Iraq, has changed its name to Xe. Most of us don’t have the benefit of starting anew with a brand new identity, nor do we have spin doctors at our disposal.

Another key reason elite deviance continues, and likely happened at Peanut Corp., is the process of diffusion of responsibility, when no one feels explicitly responsible for an organization’s activities. The cliché of “just following orders” might seem like a cop-out, but consider the role of power in elite deviance. Many of the workers at the peanut plant earned minimum wage and struggled for their basic survival; losing a job could have been financially devastating for them and their families. They might feel like they have little power to change the conditions of the plant and know they could be easily replaced.

Corporations are typically hierarchical; even people higher up in a company might feel pressure to conform to the expectations set by those at the top. Managers who spend much of their waking hours at a company and devote years of their lives to it many not want to risk the possibility of promotion if they become whistle blowers; those that do expose former employers may have trouble finding another job in their industry.

Ideally, individual morality would outweigh these factors; we’d like to think that if we were in the position to blow the whistle we would. But sometimes the realities of power dynamics get in the way. What other sociological reasons do you think explain the spoiled peanut butter and other recent examples of elite deviance?


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It all goes back to Marx and economic determinism. The quest for the almighty dollar overrides morality!

Wow! Thank goodness I'm no fan of peanut butter! Actions such as this Elite Deviance truly show the corruption that is prevalant in American Society. It makes me sick to think that anything we may be eating may be hiding something truly sinister; something we can't see, but will definitely feel later. Just seeing this one industry fall like this makes one wonder what other industries are resorting to the same tactics. Where is a truly efficient FDA when we need one?

Your blog gave me a good description of elite deviance. Such thing is becoming common in today's world, and it is sad that the people we elect, or choose to be in charge, go corrupt. Having so much power gets into their heads. It is disturbing to know that the people in charge of the peanut butter shipments, decided to ship out the contaminated product anyways. Good thing I'm allergic to peanut butter huh?

It appears that this sort of creation of new or strange behaviors through power is happening more and more often today. Our politicians and company executives are using their power to actually lean towards negative deviance, that is, committing crimes and rather shady acts. I wonder if elite deviance always leads to negative deviance, it seems to quite often. It's like the quote from Spiderman "With great power comes great responsibility." It appears that these responsibilities are being shirked or twisted into corruption and negative behavior.

While I do agree that it is scary to hear that rats and cockroaches infiltrated peanut butter that was shipped regardless of the fact that it was contaminated. However, I do not agree that this is as extreme as The Jungle have a person become a part of the product is cannibalism and breaks a taboo. While thinking about the germs that have made their way into by peanut butter is disgusting is does not evoke the same level of revulsion as eating a human.
Why didn't any of the employees say anything to warn the public? Conflict theorists might say that the bourgeoisie, or the owners of the company, put pressure on the proletariats, or employees to get the product out even though it had been contaminated by rats and cockroaches. Just trace the money, the people with the large amounts are the ones putting the pressure on those with small amounts to keep production going.
It seems unlikely that the people in this particular case were deviant for the “sneaky thrill” an that Jack Katz developed as an explanation for deviant behavior not related to a person's background. The Milgram experiment offers a possible, alternative explanation for the deviance. In his experiment Stanly Milgram showed that people are willing to torture people with high levels voltage (the people were not really being shocked) as long as someone was there giving the order and would take responsibility. At the peanut butter factory many of the workers may simply have excepted the command because they would not have to bare responsibility, this demonstrates at least a mild case of too much groupthink.

I am student in a sociology class and we were just talking about deviance. You would almost think that people in such prestigious places wouldn't be deviant, but you explained it well. It is a lot easier for companies to start new than for individuals to do the same, and deviant behavior appears to be hard to avoid just about anywhere. Also, the whole rats and tainted food being sold really creeps me out, lets hope this kind of elite deviance doesn't keep going on! I liked your post, very helpful in giving a life example of deviance.

This is a perfect example of negative deviance, where an individual fail to meet the standard of society. Hopefully in the future there will be a positive deviance, where the service and quality of good far exceeds expectations. Until then, Peanut Company, I'll just wait for your "cloak of secrecy" to be unveiled.

I had no idea there was a specific type of deviance relating to corporations and the top of society. This type of deviance is way too common today. Hopefully this will slowly change.

I enjoyed reading over your blogpost. It was very interesting and yet very nerve-racking that the hierarchy of people working for companies is so motivated negatively by the face value of the dollar.It disgusts me that morality is over-ruled in health issues. When we are little, we are taught that life will throw personal circumstances at us and it is up to us to take a stand for what is morally right.People should abide by this old lesson because it is to ensure the Common Good for everyone. Be devious. Be a role model. Do not be an ugly, money-hungry company employee.Do the right thing people!

its great blog, there are many corporate do wrong in product their goods. we have to activ controling corporate activities because most of corporates just think about advantages.

Americans are large consumers. We depend on so many different people to provide the things we want and need. For example, we depend on a doctor to properly diagnose us and give us the best treatment. While in the past, most illnesses were diagnosed by someone in the house and treated with home remedies. Not only that but also things like clothing, food, home repairs, etc. This means when deviance occurs, it can cause harm to so many different people. This is why when reading your article, I was so surprised. One would think that someone in a powerful position would not make unethical choices especially after what had happened in the meat industry. It makes it even more difficult to fathom when thinking how many more people the market reaches.

This is why I always worry if something labeled as a meat product actually has some human or rat in it..this is why I am considering making everything by hand and growing all my own produce. Some people are just plain sick and will literally sell you poop in order to line their pockets.

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