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?