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Food Safety News

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Letter From The Editor: Ripples

Big stories generate more news downstream that we have to start thinking about. The most deadly outbreak in 25 years is definitely going to have ripples of its own. 


Those ripples are going to reach pretty much all corners of the food safety community and there are indications already that these are being experienced. 

Just two weeks after the public was warned about the outbreak, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, found herself essentially being asked why the new FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act did not prevent it.

When (or maybe if) Congress investigates the 25-state outbreak of Listeria illnesses, with full-blown public hearings, FDA will probably spend more time under the klieg lights than anyone else.

Fair?  Not really.  But, Congress likes to keep its “experts on tap, not on top.”

It’s not going to cut FDA a break for the fact that it’s only 10 months into implementing the new law with all those federal rule-making requirements, all while Congress has not exactly stepped up on funding issues.

But FDA, along with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are going to know the most about how Listeria got into cantaloupe, causing a deadly outbreak.

Once the FDA/CDC report comes out — expected any day now — Congress is going to want its experts to come up the Hill for a song and dance.

We can only hope the report is not being held up to accommodate the politicians.

One question Congress might want to consider is whether it did the local food movement any good by exempting small growers from the FSMA.   

Jensen Farms, the Colorado cantaloupe grower that recalled at least 1.5 million melons after they were associated with the outbreak, is too big for an exemption.

However, in the cantaloupe world where the big growers are in California and Arizona, Jensen Farms is not that big of a player. Might buyers shun small growers who are exempt? It is just another possible ripple from the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in 25 years.

Economic costs are another big ripple. With only a few exceptions, the 116 infected with Listeria have either been in for long hospital stays or they are already among the dead.

Growers are finding the market is reacting by shunning cantaloupes specifically and melons in general. Costs on both sides of this ledger are going to be staggering.

Indeed those costs may be high enough to bring growers and consumers together in taking any steps that might prevent this kind of an outbreak from occurring again.

The highest cost, however, is the fatality rate that could easily go north of 20 percent. Most of these elderly Americans were living robust, enthusiastic lives before they ate cantaloupe contaminated with this pathogen.

They are going to be missed by their families and friends, and in many cases their grandchildren. These are profound losses.

When Canada went through a Listeria outbreak from lunch meats three years ago,  the nation out of conscience demanded that all the answers be sought by an independent inquiry.

We don’t have the attention span for that, but there will be ripples.

© Food Safety News
  • Steve

    Following the assumption that if you repeat something often enough, it must be true — it’s too bad our erstwhile editor has bought the Big Produce line that FSMA exempts small growers — ie. “One question Congress might want to consider is whether it did the local food movement any good by exempting small growers from the FSMA.”
    Even a cursory glance at FSMA would show that small and very small growers are subject to a different set of scale-appropriate, risk-based regs — not the one-size-fits-all rules whose compliances would quickly put them out of business.
    And while Jensen Farms may be small potatoes in the cantaloupe world (compared to Cargill’s ground turkey, their recall is a measly 1.5 million melons) no way are they any where near FDA’s definition of “small”and “very small” in FSMA.
    So, in this case our editor’s conjecture has no bearing on this story at all. But his further pointing at the straw man “exemption” leads him further down this side road to a next question as to to whether buyers might then shun small scale growers — because of yet another outbreak in the industrialized food system.
    Well, this again is how Big produce likes to paint it. They gloss over their own large-scale transgressions by attributing scare stories to the small-scale, local sector (which is actually eating into their bottom line). And meanwhile they’re pushing for things like a USDA National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement that is designed to give a federal stamp of approval to the Big Boys — while, yup, creating yet another exclusive marketing construct to make buyers shun small growers…

  • mrothschild

    Steve: Dan is still the editor. He is not the erstwhile editor.

  • Mary Rothschild

    Steve: Dan is still the editor. He is not the erstwhile editor.

  • anthony Boutard

    With this Listeria outbreak in melons we have the equivalent to a 25 state pile-up on the interstate involving a large grower and distributor, and 23 deaths in 12 of those states. Instead of reflecting on the safety of large consolidated operations and how to make the interstate distribution of food safer, Food Safety News somehow manages to come to the conclusion that a 1.5 million melon recall is not really that large, and that we need to draw small, local farmers into federal regulatory framework, the equivalent of editorializing about the commercial drivers license standards for bicyclists following a large accident involving a tractor-trailer on the interstate.
    I deliver my berries to local grocery stores. To make sure people know they are grown by us, all of my flats and the individual pints are marked with our farm name and location. Identity preserved is at the core of the local food movement. I know the produce managers and their assistants by name, and many of them have been to our farm. In fact, many of their customers have visited our farm, and greet me by name. This is typical for the small, local farms. For the life of me, I cannot understand why federal intervention in the local distribution of food is needed or desirable. Local health authorities are well trained to deal with local health issues. It is when my berries from Oregon are sold to a store in Passaic, New Jersey, that a federal role is warranted. I don’t know any produce managers from Passaic, and they have never visited my farm.
    The editorial implies there may be some elusive protection afforded to local growers if the federal regulations were applied to them. I have been reading John Munsell’s series and he provides a very different picture of federal regulation as applied to a small packer. When the FDA met with local growers a couple years ago, their manner was no better than that of the USDA described by Munsell. They were evasive and treated the farmers no better than children. No thanks, I will take my chances with local professionals.
    Anthony Boutard
    Ayers Creek Farm