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Lost in Translation: It Depends What You Mean By “Voluntary”


The public relations spin on recent public health disasters caused by harmful food or drug products prompted me to think about what the word “voluntary” means in this context.

For example, the consumer advocacy website reports, “Days after its Peter Pan peanut butter and its generic counterpart, Great Value, distributed at Wal-Mart stores, was linked to a widespread salmonella outbreak, food giant ConAgra has initiated a voluntary recall.”

But here’s the back story: The Food and Drug Administration had already urged consumers to toss jars bought as far back as March 2006, blaming the peanut butter for hundreds of salmonella cases in 39 states. And a Seattle law firm had already filed a class action suit, claiming it had been contacted by more than 2,500 people who became ill.

So just how “voluntary” was this recall?

Another example: Pergolide, a Parkinson’s drug that can damage patients’ heart valves, was removed from the market “voluntarily” by Big Drug maker Valeant Pharmaceuticals. . . after the New England Journal of Medicine had published two articles substantiating the link between pergolide and valvular heart disease. According to the FDA, this link was first established five years ago – in 2002.

Yet another example: In a widely-publicized “voluntary” recall last year, contact lens solution maker Bausch & Lomb recalled its ReNu with MoistureLoc solution only after a major outbreak in Singapore of a dangerous fungus, fusarium keratitis – despite warnings from the FDA as far back as July 2002 about Bausch & Lomb’s manufacturing and packing processes.

I have a suggestion for Merriam-Webster. How about an alternative meaning for “voluntary:” action taken only after substantial numbers of people have been killed or injured, and advocates of justice have moved to hold wrongdoers accountable for the harm they have caused.

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Posted By: Michael Geoffroy