Garance Burke, the pied piper of pepper reporting, added fuel to the flames lapping at what is left of a once proud Federal Agency – the FDA.  Her story of a few hours ago, “Mexican peppers posed problem long before outbreak,” is less shocking than pathetic. Here is the meat:

Federal inspectors at U.S. border crossings repeatedly turned back filthy, disease-ridden shipments of peppers from Mexico in the months before a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,400 people was finally traced to Mexican chilies.

Yet no larger action was taken.  Food and Drug Administration officials insisted as recently as last week that they were surprised by the outbreak because Mexican peppers had not been spotted as a problem before.

Peppers and chilies were consistently the top Mexican crop rejected by border inspectors for the last year. Since January alone, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away.  Ten percent were contaminated with salmonella.  In the last year, 8 percent of the 158 intercepted shipments of fresh and dried chilies had salmonella.

The agency doesn’t keep count of what percentage of the nearly 491,200 metric tons of Mexican peppers imported last year were turned away at the U.S. border.  In general, the federal government inspects less than 1 percent of all foreign food entering the country.

And, David Acheson, our Food Czar, linked the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak to Tomatoes?  "Say it ain’t so."  With our federal food safety agencies unable to perform at a basic level of competence, perhaps the Opinion Piece in the LA Times has things at least partially correct – “Sold on food safety – Corporate self-interest and fear of lawsuits has some retailers taking on the role of consumer watchdogs.”

If more than 1,400 people were sickened by a nationwide outbreak of salmonella, could a lawsuit be far behind?  A Colorado man has sued Wal-Mart [that would be my case], claiming that he was sold a tainted jalapeno pepper even though the retailer leads its customers to believe that the food it sells is wholesome.  [The Salmonella Saintpaul found in his stool was a match to the peppers found in his home and linked to all 1,400 other illnesses and the Mexican farms where the peppers were grown].

The opinion piece goes on to say incorrectly,  “Wal-Mart, of course, would have had no way of knowing whether its peppers were tainted [Hmmm, wonder if Wal-Mart even cared where it could buy peppers the cheapest?]….”

But, then the writer hits it:

Considering how amorphous food production is under modern agribusiness practices — with processors and distributors commingling and shipping produce from hundreds of farms, and the FDA unable so far to monitor this situation in a meaningful way — retailers represent the consumer’s best chance of being compensated for food poisoning.  Because of that, they also might turn out to be the strongest force for safer agricultural methods.

Bingo! It is time for the big retailers to step up and put food safety first.  Whether it is peppers procured by Wal-Mart or hamburger handled by Whole Foods, retailers must require – and pay for – safe food from suppliers.  Safer food means less ill people, less ill people means less lawsuits. Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, get the picture?  You stop buying contaminated food and selling it as safe to your customers and I will stop suing you – easy enough?

  • The problem is that it is not easy. There is no quick fix, unless you advocate for irradiation of meat and produce. Where I live, farmers have removed 85% of native vegetation on or nearby their farms, vegetation that includes some of the remaining wetlands and riparian habitat left in the region. This is crucial habitat for wildlife, and study after study does not find E.coli in this wildlife. The sources of E.coli seem to be surface water, pathogen-laden dust, and perhaps improper handling in the harvesting and processing phase. Retailers are demanding ridiculous and environmentally damaging practices of farmers even though there is no scientific evidence that links wildlife and habitat to E.coli. We can’t have the retailers doing the policing because they lack an understanding of the complex biological processes that happen on farms and they are demanding things of farmers that are quite frankly illegal (practices that are against the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act). We have to come up with better solutions than holding the retailers responsible for what happens on farms. How about a better government inspection program?

  • Everett Benjamin

    I agree with Rebecca, this isn’t a simple problem to fix. In the case of “leafy greens” farmers now have retailers telling them how to farm. If we rally wanted to get back to healthy produce and meats in this country we’d do away with the “giant” agribusiness and revert back to small family type farms. That would eliminate the giant packing plants as well, which is where 95% of the contamination of all our food occurs anyhow. And as far as the USDA Inspectors, that is a real joke. They are simply there as figure heads. A point to remember, whenever a recall occurs, after making people sick or killing them, the farmer who grew the product and the packing plant/slaughter house are the ones that get sued, fined whatever. Why are the USDA INSPECTORS never held liable, after all they assured the PUBLIC the product was safe and they tested it! The biggest problem is people want so called “cheap” food, but then this food really isn’t “cheap” when you consider the destruction it’s doing to the environment, the health risks to the consumers, and the lack of human treatment to the animals. So, until the American public stands up to the mega-agribusiness, Monsanto, the USDA and their likes and says, NO MORE! we will continue to see and hear of more and more of our citizens falling sick and dying from “outbreaks” in our food supply.