Nuts

Why the salmonella scandal was the least of Plainview’s worries.
by Published on

Fourth in an occasional series on recession-era Texas.

Locked chains snake through Plainview’s Peanut Corp. of America plant fence, clinking in the wind. Grain elevators dot the flat Panhandle horizon. Standing in the deserted building’s gravel parking lot, you feel the diesel trucks rumbling a few hundred yards away on Interstate 27. You see smoke rise from the nearby Cargill Inc. beef-processing plant. You can’t miss the roadside billboard depicting a cowboy hat-and-boots-clad peanut with cartoon eyes lassoing the PCA logo.

Last January, the company made national headlines when the Food and Drug Administration shut down its Blakely, Georgia, plant, where salmonella-producing health violations reportedly included mice in a tote of peanuts, standing water, and a dry-roasted rodent. A month later, CNN, the Associated Press and The New York Times reported another chapter of the story: PCA was closing its Plainview plant after state inspectors found unsanitary conditions there. Thirty employees were out of work.

Though it had opened its Plainview operation in 2005, PCA had never filed for a state health certificate. When the headlines erupted over the Georgia plant, state health officials “saw there was one in Texas,” Department of State Health Services spokesperson Doug McBride told the Associated Press. That was the first they knew of the Plainview plant. When inspectors first visited the plant on Jan. 12, they found minor problems. During a return visit on Feb. 9, they discovered dead rodents, excrement, and bird feathers in a crawl space above the ceiling. The building’s air-handling system was unsealed, allowing debris from the infested crawl space to be pulled into the plant’s production areas. The plant was immediately closed, and its products recalled. On April 9, the Texas Department of Health levied a $14.6 million fine against PCA.

“I was not surprised when it shut down,” said David Longoria, a 29-year-old who worked at the Plainview plant in 2007 and 2008. The plant’s peanuts were imported from outside Hale County, roasted on site, and then sold to commercial food industries that had no idea what went on there.

“People didn’t wash their hands or wear plastic gloves when handling food,” Longoria said. “I saw people sneeze and spit in the bags. Rat traps were in areas they weren’t supposed to be. Peanuts would fall on the floor, which was covered in grease, dirt and oil. Employees shoveled up the peanuts and put them back on the line. It was pretty bad.”

Conditions at PCA plants were so bad, in fact, that nine people died and at least 700 became sick in 46 states from food poisoning related to the company’s products. Though primarily sold to institutions like schools and nursing homes, some of those products also landed in Whole Foods stores in Northern California. The salmonella outbreak triggered the most extensive food recall in U.S. history. While the popularity of peanut butter usually spikes during economic hard times, sales plunged. Congress and the Obama administration proposed overhauling food regulations.

The salmonella scare put Plainview on the national radar for the worst of reasons. But not for long. The 24-hour news moved swiftly onward, with dirty peanuts giving way to other crises: swine flu, nuclear tests in North Korea, Jessica Simpson getting dumped by Tony Romo. Still, when I visited Plainview a couple of months after the headlines stopped, I expected to find the town of 22,000, north of Lubbock and south of Amarillo, still buzzing over the episode.

The Spudnut Shop, a Plainview institution since 1952, looked like the ideal place to hear the buzz. When I stopped by midmorning, I found men in jeans, starched shirts and baseball caps helping themselves to 60-cent, pink-glazed donuts, 80-cent coffee, and of course spudnuts, a sugar-laden mixture of dough and potato. Pictures of antique jalopies adorned the walls. The women wore makeup and perms. If not dyed, the clientele’s dominant hair color was gray. Everybody shuffled and visited around the plastic brown tables and orange booths.

“Gimme a snort,” said one man, responding to a proffered refill. He and his wife were squeezed into a booth with another couple. “I’m still looking on the computer for ammunition,” he said, “and every site says out out out.” He sipped his coffee. The wives silently ate their spudnuts. “Maybe Obama bought all of ‘em.”

“Probably,” the other man responded.

I walked to the counter. “I’ve had more job applications recently,” Jerry Johnston told me. She and her husband, Carroll, owned and operated the shop. “Of course, two people didn’t show for work this morning.” She smiled. “That’s why I’m wearing an apron.” The couple worked the morning’s dough amid steel mixers, pans, and a flour-speckled conveyor belt dropping spudnuts. I asked about the economic impact of the PCA closing.

“I had one woman come through who said she had lost her job at the peanut plant,” Carroll Johnston says. Then he nodded to the drive-through window, where a steady stream of customers eased up to collect their grease-stained bags. “I don’t think the plant’s closing has made much of a difference.”

On my way out, I stopped by the crowded booth to ask the couples’ opinions.

“None of the money came here anyway,” one of the men said. His blue baseball cap had a patch identifying his World War II Navy vessel.

“They just drug it too far in the media,” his wife said.

Given the media coverage, I was surprised by Plainview’s unfazed citizenry. But Charles Starnes, an economics professor at the town’s Wayland Baptist University, told me the plant’s closing was a minor loss in Hale County’s predominantly agricultural economy. “The economic impact of the peanut factory in Plainview was about $1 million a year,” he said. “Hale County’s total economy is on the order of several billion dollars.” But, Starnes notes, “The million dollars isn’t trivial to the people who lost their jobs or the psyche of the community who says, ‘Oh my goodness, what was going on that we didn’t know about?’”

Across rural Texas, minor business losses are adding up to a major shortage of jobs. Plainview’s economy is faring better than most, but that’s not saying much.

“Unemployment is a problem,” said Longoria, the former PCA employee. He found work in Plainview, but he’s not so sure about his former co-workers.

“It’s hard to find a job in this area,” he said. “If you’re not working at Cargill or the Wal-Mart distribution center”—which collectively employ 4,000—”you’re pretty much out of luck. You either move to Amarillo or Lubbock.”

It’s a similar story in most rural Texas towns, which is the main reason that 87 percent of the state’s population now lives in urban areas.

The Spudnut Shop closed on July 26. As the few remaining mom-and-pop institutions in small-town Texas die out, places like Plainview try to hold on, competing with each other to lure new Cargills and Wal-Mart distribution centers. A lack of job growth, not the bad PR over a peanut plant’s closure, is the real crisis plaguing Plainview.