In reading the February 20th Food Safety News story, “Ten Years of Bribery and Bad Tomatoes” and today’s New York Times story, “Bribes Let Tomato Vendor Sell Tainted Food,” (thanks for pic) I was struck by the thought that the safety of our food ultimately rests on the belief – albeit and apparently mistaken – that the folks selling us food would never sell it to us if it was full of moldy tomatoes or full of Salmonella, E. coli, etc (a.k.a., full of shit).

Despite what seems like daily food recalls and weekly foodborne illness outbreaks, we still – as does the President, Congress, the FDA and FSIS – believe that growers, shippers, manufacturers and retailers are not really out to poison us.

Not to sound paranoid, but don’t you think our beliefs are a bit misplaced? For god’s sake, the CDC says 76,000,000 people are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die every year in the U.S.A., because the food they ate was tainted with some pathogen – bacteria or virus. You would think that if we had a nearly 1 or of 4 chances of being sickened by the food we eat yearly, we would have quickly lost trust in our food supply.

Frankly, many of us have.

The tale of tomato bribery and corruption outlined in the articles are shocking, but they are really no more or less shocking than Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) poisoning 700 and killing nine fellow citizens by selling Salmonella-tainted peanut butter and covering up the test results? And, we are still waiting for the criminal prosecution of the president of PCA, Stewart Parnell – we likely will continue to wait.

Also, how different really is the Cargill E. coli outbreak of 2007 that paralyzed 20-year-old dancer, Stephanie Smith, or the 2009 Valley Meats E. coli outbreak of 2009 that eventually lead to the death of 7-year-old Abby Fenstermaker? What about the Nebraska Beef E. coli outbreak in 2006 that killed Caroline Hawkinson at a church supper? What about another Nebraska Beef E. coli outbreak in 2008 that burned through South Georgia nearly taking the life of Evelyn Stewart and several others? And, what about Linda Rivera, who has been hospitalized since May 2009 after eating E. coli-tainted cookie dough?

Those are just the tip of a very nasty food poisoning iceberg, and only a few years snapshot of the outbreaks that stretch back into my legal life. Perhaps there were no bribes; perhaps there were no falsified test results, but there were warnings ignored, shortcuts taken, investments not made, and customers’ safety ultimately ignored. Why? Because, we let them.

The thing about food – unlike most other products – is that, like water and air – we need food to survive. That leaves us with very little leverage in a complex, over fed (in some countries) and under fed (in many others), and over populated world, where we are more and more disconnected to food. Today we rely of a long chain of distribution to feed us. We trust the chain to feed us and not poison us. We trust that it is in the chains’ economic self-interest to not kill us off. We trust the Government to watch our backs. Why? Because, we have to.

Many try to break the chain of growers, shippers, manufacturers and retailers and go “locavore” – to buy food within 100 miles of home (forget bananas in Minneapolis in the winter).

Some have moved so far away from what most American’s recognize as our food chain, as to go from organic, to natural, and then to raw. Word to the wise – not all of the 76,000,000 sickened eat CAFO raised, mass-produced, mega-corporate food. Sometimes local, raw milk, sprout or leafy green farmer Bob – much like (pick a nasty corporation) – does a very efficient job of poisoning his customers.

Yes, on average I think growing your own is safer than leaving it up to Wal-Mart or McDonald’s to decide what to sell you. But, with a world population moving rapidly past six billion, I am not sure we can solely rely on Bob or my tomatoes and zucchini to feed the world.

So, what’s the solution? Yes, I support more inspection, enforcement, criminal prosecution, and, my personal favorite – suing the hell out of companies who poison people. But, all of that will not catch as many problems than if everyone in the food chain – short or long – would simply take a deep breath and ask, “would I feed this to my kid?”

  • Marymary

    We make the assumption that food producers wouldn’t intentionally harm us, because most of us (and I would include many food producers, unfortunately) have no idea how foodborne illness occurs. Foodborne illness is often the result of carelessness and ignorance, not intentional actions to knowingly sell tainted product, Stewart Parnell and the tomato bribery issues notwithstanding.
    We judge the safety of food by its taste, smell, and appearance not realizing that food can, look, taste and smell fine and still be harmful to ingest. We assume that the last thing we ate made us sick, not realizing that it can take a few days or even a few weeks for symptoms to manifest.
    Here is a telling story: When I worked in retail food sanitation, the local health dept. made an effort every once in a while to educate the 300+ establishments in our county. We held several sessions over the course of a few days. One restaurant owner, who was Servsafe certified and claimed to be quite knowledgeable about food safety, kept derailing our presentation with his statements about the federal authorities allowing so many insect parts into canned vegetables etc. Even with all of his “education,” that man was focused on obvious dirt and vermin, rather than the microscopic bacteria and viruses that are responsible for those 76 million illnesses per year.
    People, whether they are in the food industry or are ordinary consumers, just don’t get it when it comes to food safety, and they likely never will.