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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Topps – Lessons America Forgot from Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle”

In October Topps Meat Company, founded in 1940, went out of business. That was after Topps had recalled nearly 22 million pounds of frozen hamburger contaminated with E. coli and 40 people across the U.S. had become ill.

Tort deformers decried the “tragedy” that is this Topps’ collapse – that a business went under and employees had lost their jobs. Yes, a company bankrupt and unemployment are tragic. What makes it more so is that the catastrophic breakdown in the food-safety chain at Topps could have and should have been prevented by Topps management.

It’s been a century since Utpon Sinclair published the “Jungle," which exposed the contaminated underbelly of the American meat industry. Reform quickly followed. America got the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Acts. In the early 1990s, when these safeguards failed – e.g. Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak – again there was a public push for improving food safety.

The U.S.D.A. Food and Inspection Service responded with creating and aggressively enforcing the mandatory Risk Management System. Derived from research and operations in the American space program, this approach [HACCP] prevented new outbreaks by establishing check-points at every phase of meat processing. In addition, the agency classified the presence of E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant under the Meat Inspection Act. Until recently, the meat contamination problem seemed fixed.

Had Topps complied with the letter and spirit of HACCP, it would not have processed contaminated meat in 2005 and again in 2007. So, why hadn’t Topps done what was the right thing to do for it and its now unemployed? We will be researching that question for years.

My theory is that Topps’ leadership might have chosen to take short-cuts on systemic food-safety procedures. Therefore, contamination which should have been detected early in meat processing wasn’t. The result wasn’t pretty: Food-poisoned consumers went through the agony that E. coli inflicts. They had incorrectly trusted that label “Inspected by the U.S.D.A.” as guaranteeing safety.

Over a century, two waves of reform in ensuring the safety of the American food supply chain have given business a total systems approach. That approach works if management follows the rules. Unfortunately, employees at Topps who lost their means of making a living were among those punished – severely.

Will other businesses be able to learn that century-old lesson: Inattention to proper food processing will be the kiss of death for their brandname, profitability and, yes, very existence.

  • Reading that book in sixth grade is what turned me against eating meat.
    Still loving the dancing chicken.