When the 'FDA Approves Salmonella,' How Should Your Company Respond?

When the 'FDA Approves Salmonella,' How Should Your Company Respond?

In huge bold typeface, the March 12 edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion reports in its lead story that the FDA has approved salmonella; the subhead cites the pathogen as "part of a well-balanced diet." The piece continues by quoting FDA as declaring salmonella "perfectly safe for the most part" and "not nearly as destructive or fatal as you'd think."

The Onion article taps into the growing public sense that government health and safety agencies have been compromised by anti-science, anti-regulatory interests and cannot be trusted. By remarkable coincidence, the Onion's piece appeared the same day that some true high-profile stories about product safety made the news:

• SCJohnson and Son, Inc. declared it would remove all phthalates from its products and provide robust public disclosure of product ingredients. The company, citing consumer concern and trust, noted it was "going beyond regulatory requirements in its product development." [See Marc Gunther's blog post on the development.]
• The Associated Press reported that Sunoco had adopted a policy of not selling the chemical Bisphenol A to customers who planned to use it in food- and water-contact products for children under 3 years of age. Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry's trade association, continues to remind the concerned public that the FDA has declared BPA to be safe.
• The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics launched its No More Toxic Tub report describing the presence of formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane, chemicals labeled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as "probable" human carcinogens, in popular brand name baby bath and personal care products.

And just two days earlier, The Disney Company released its Healthy Cleaning Policy, noting that it will work to achieve its health and safety goals in a precautionary manner that minimizes the use of chemicals and will go beyond regulatory requirements to seek products that are effective but also minimize environmental impact. Disney will also encourage its suppliers to develop innovative products that meet health and safety goals in ways least harmful to the environment. Disney had been pressed by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice to publish such a policy and socially responsible investors had been urging the company to be more transparent and public about its environmental goals and actions. Disney's policy would be even stronger if it included metrics and goals by which progress can be measured.

The Onion story and the real-life articles capture several interrelated strategic challenges that companies face with respect to chemicals in their products.

First, government agencies, despite good work by those who persevered during the anti-environmental push of the last administration, aren't trusted by many consumers.

Second, consumer and environmental health advocates are filling in the gaps left by government inaction; they are testing products and detecting chemicals that scientists have found to be carcinogenic, reproductive toxicants, or otherwise hazardous. Investigative journalists are also getting into the act -- a team of reporters at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has won three journalism awards for landmark reporting on Bisphenol A.

Third, smart companies are making precautionary business judgments about the chemicals in their products. Even if they believe that regulators' judgments are on their side, the better competitive position to adopt is to side with their customers lacking faith in regulators' judgments and to work with their supply chain to eliminate chemicals of concern.

The take-home lesson: If you're a consumer-facing retailer or manufacturer, it's no longer adequate to say "the regulators say our products and chemicals are safe" or "we are in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations." Such declarations simply are not good enough in the competitive marketplace, especially when regulators are not trusted.

(Disclosure: I provided information to The Disney Company as part of investor engagement there, and the investors receiving information from Sunoco are participants in the Investor Environmental Health Network.)

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, www.iehn.org.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user optimal tweezers.