I have decided this week that the Tea Party movement is right – business and government in the U.S.A. are a bunch of damn socialists – at least they are when poisoning consumers and investigating outbreaks.
First, full disclosure. When I am not channeling Rupert Murdoch in my role as publisher at Food Safety News, I play an ambulance chasing super lawyer. Interestingly, in both roles, accurate, complete and timely information is the key to either a good story or a good lawsuit – and many times both.
So, what’s my point? Accurate, complete and timely information is the actual gas that makes the engine of our free market operate. In my world, where consumers get poisoned by the food they and their families eat, knowing the product and who poisoned you is important, not just so you know whom to sue, but also who not to buy from next time – or at least until they stop poisoning people. That is the free market operating effectively. With accurate, complete and timely information comes free choice that matters (versus free choice that is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette). Knowing who produces safe food allows consumers to vote with their dollars, making sure that the producers of unsafe food get voted out.
I am frustrated, however, that business and government seem so intent on keeping information from us. (Think of the scene in "A Few Good Men” where Jack Nicholson character yells “you can’t handle the truth!”) More specifically, I am frustrated that business and government in two recent foodborne illness outbreaks seem so intent in deciding what we need to know thereby putting sugar in our gas tanks and letting the free market engine grind to a halt.
Just over a month ago rumors started swirling in the upper-Midwest and beyond that leafy greens – specifically romaine lettuce was tainted with E. coli and Salmonella. First, it was rumored that the source was a Michigan Mexican-style restaurant, and then it was college food service. Eventually, an E. coli O145 outbreak was announced that has been linked to Freshway Foods, Andrew Smith and a Yuma Farm and thirty-some illnesses in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, New York and Pennsylvania. Now, over a month into the recall, the FDA, Freshway and Andrew Smith are silent as to the name of the Yuma Farm. Do they really not know? And, if they do not know, then why not? You must admit letting the public know that Yuma Farm is sending us pathogenic E. coli has value. Perhaps we can decide not to purchase from them again? Perhaps we can learn why it happened on that farm? Such knowledge becomes the engine for improving safety and, more importantly, letting the public make informed food choices.
So, let’s talk Salmonella and Fresh Express. We know that Fresh Express recalled their product after a bag of their lettuce product tested positive for Salmonella during retail sampling. By all accounts, Fresh Express has acted admirably in cooperating with the FDA. However, Fresh Express has also been linked to several Salmonella illnesses in the upper-Midwest that occurred before this recall, and having nothing to do with it. So, why the cone of silence over health departments? So, why no announcement by authorities, or Fresh Express, that Fresh Express product sickened people? Did they tell the sick people what product poisoned them? Why not tell the public? Shouldn’t the public have the right to know if food safety, industry leader, Fresh Express, is as fallible as the rest of lettuce producers? Doesn’t the free market require accurate, complete and timely information to allow consumers to know what they believe is safe for they and their families?
It is time for us all to act like good capitalists and turn away from the seduction of socialism, where government decides what the public needs to know, and when. Yes, it’s hard to tell the truth and to tell people things that are hard and perhaps embarrassing. But, that is the cost/benefit of living in a free society. Freedom requires information. Businesses and government have limited rights to hide information from us – especially when we are being poisoned by a foodborne illness.