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Food Safety News

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What Do Cantaloupe and Baseball Have in Common?

At Least a Baseball Won't Kill You

Opinion

I stopped being a fan of Alex Rodriquez years ago when he left the Mariners, so I was not that particularly bothered when he was banned from baseball for steroid use.

A-Rod’s banning, along with the past steroid-induced sins of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and others, show that player punishment or embarrassment does not always stop the crime.

No serious person can believe that players have an incentive to play “clean.” More homers and strikeouts mean more fans in the stands, or glued to TV commercials, and even more revenue for the owners. More revenue for owners translates into bonuses for players, incentivizing players to cheat.  Owners talk all season about the evils of steroid use as they stuff great gobs of money into their pockets that they make from players advantaged by steroids.

Money talks and ethics walk.

Players are the well-paid chattel of owners who want to win at any cost. Owners may well feign ignorance of steroid-induced homers or strikes, but they covet them nonetheless. Banning A-Rod changes nothing.

Want to change the direction of baseball overnight? Change the incentives. If the Yankees had been banned from Baseball for a year and a half — not A-Rod — you can bet that no player in baseball would touch the stuff again.

So, what does cantaloupe have to do with Baseball? Much, in addition to both being round. Like players and the baseball industry, incentives are wrong with cantaloupe growers — actually all food — and the retail industry.

In 2011, Listeria-tainted cantaloupes grown in Eastern Colorado sickened 147 in two dozen states, killing at least 33. It was the largest foodborne outbreak death toll in the United States in 100 years. That is saying a lot given that the Centers for Disease Control and prevention estimate that food sickens 48,000,000, hospitalizes 135,000 and kills over 3,000 each year.

The year before, a third generation cantaloupe grower had been enticed by a broker-shipper preferred by Walmart and Kroger to expand its market nationwide. An auditor recommended by Walmart inspected the farm and packing shed in 2011, while the cantaloupes were actually being washed by un-chlorinated, Listeria-tainted water.  The farm, as with most food audits, got a superior rating of 96%. That was the green light for the cantaloupes to ship to your local Walmart or Kroger.

Those same retailersdistance themselves from such behavior, clucking constantly about food safety from “farm to fork” and creating a “culture of food safety.” They hire auditors as middlemen in the food-safety chain to give them cover to ignore food safety risks.

The grower of the tainted cantaloupe has gone bankrupt.  The grower is also facing criminal misdemeanor charges for selling food considered to be “adulterated,” which according to Federal law is food that “bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health.” These charges, unlike a felony charge, “do not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct.” The grower does face fines and jail nonetheless.

Countless other growers and manufacturers of food produced in the last decades have faced both civil and criminal liability — yet food poisoning continues.

Sound a bit like players facing suspension over and over again?

Retailers, like team owners, require audits, set the rules, called specifications, for how food — like cantaloupes — should be safely produced. They then ignore their own rules because living by their rules costs a cent or two more, and that seems not worth the price. Why? Because just like Baseball owners who can pass the buck to the players, it is not retailers who are on the hook if there is a problem — the growers are.

Team owners squeeze their players by demanding performance. No home runs or strike-outs — no place on the team. Retailers squeeze their suppliers on price. Not the lowest price? You are out. In fact, retailers squeeze growers for the last bit of profit, leaving little for growers to invest in producing safer food – an oddly perverse incentive.

Want to change the direction of food safety overnight? Change the incentives.

Most Americans do not realize that the retailers they buy their food from are mainly insulated from civil and criminal liability. Only their suppliers have liability. But, if we were to put the onus of compensating customers for medical bills and lost wages onto the retailers that profit the most from the sale, their incentives to buy food that will not kill you would go up a lot.

Want to change the incentive of a retailer who sells you food that can make you sick or kill you? Have them face jail time or fines if they do.

Want to make food safer from “farm to fork” in a “culture of food safety?” Pay fair wages to farm workers and fair prices to growers. Both are investments in safer food.

Like steroid use in baseball, food safety will not change until those with the most power have the incentive to change behavior. Banning players or bankrupting cantaloupe growers does nothing to change the dynamic. Banning baseball owners would stop steroid use overnight. Fining or jailing retailers who sell food that kills people – well, that will do it.

© Food Safety News
  • jack scharlow

    Your article was a poor comparison. First, A-Rod is still playing. What happened innocent until proven guilty. How would you want your family to look at you? Guilty before the facts? not guilty by the Views Media.

  • Teresa Geib Bacon

    Enlightening article!

  • Sal Monella

    To make matters worst, most grocery chains profit from recalls by charging full price back to the producer. Recalls are therefore a profit center for groceries and that’s obviously the wrong incentive.

  • USFC LTD

    This is absolutely the best and most important article I’ve read to date using an outstanding comparison to what is not only wrong in sports today but most importantly what is seriously wrong in the food supply chain. Retailers, especially those of the likes of Walmart, should be held accountable in foodborne outbreaks in light of the fact that Walmart has a quality system in place that includes supplier auditing. The fact they recommended Jensen Farms use their recommended auditor should almost indict them on this case. What it a case of ‘use our recommended auditor and we’ll ensure your product makes it to the produce section?’ Was there pressure on Jensen Farms to use Walmarts recommended auditor? As a food safety consultant, I find it unconscionable anyone would recommend a grower not use a disinfectant to wash produce. Walmart does have culpability in this case. It’s very sad the Jensen family’s life was dessimated by a greedy big box store. We can all choose to not attend a baseball game but we can’t choose to not eat.

    • Sansher

      I agree that there should not have been approval of unchlorinated wash water for the packinghouse activities, that lends itself to the collusion of the audit company and Walmart being in ‘kahoots’. However I worked for a national third party auditor and they were a very good company and worked hard to maintain their standards. In fact their management was light years above the county health inspections I was doing in Florida at the county level. So try to not make a blanket statement about third party audit firms, they’re not all alike.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    I agree with you more often than not, but in this, I have to disagree. And I’m going to a different case to make a point.

    One doesn’t think that when we eat bananas we’re supporting terrorism. However, in 2007, Chiquita Brands International entered into a plea agreement with the US based on the corporation’s payments to terrorist organizations in Columbia.

    Supporting terrorism…that’s not something we take very lightly in this country. Yet during the many years when Chiquita was paying off terrorist organizations, you and I could trip down to our local supermarket and buy a Chiquita banana.

    Why did the supermarket chains not do due diligence and ensure that the banana producer is meeting federal law in its operations in Columbia? After all, don’t they have a duty to ensure the companies they work with are not violating US law?

    I can hear you saying “Not the same thing”, and you’re right: a corporation paying off terrorist organizations is not the same thing as a corporation not adhering to legal safe food requirements.

    Yet, if we demand that supermarkets–corporate buyers–do due diligence when it comes to ensuring their suppliers meet their legal requirements when producing the resource the supermarket purchases, doesn’t this apply whether the laws being broken are those associated with paying off terrorist organizations, as well as those related to food safety?

    Goodness knows, people are being hurt with both actions.

    Where is the line drawn defining corporate purchaser accountability? Which laws are contained within the sphere of accountability, and which laws are not?

    I don’t want to come off sounding like Judge Dredd, but the law is the law.

    My reaction with both incidents? Someone in the corporations producing the resources should be held criminally liable for their willful disregarding of the law, and face prison time.

    If a cantaloupe producer calculates that the amount of money it saves by implementing safety shortcuts is greater than the amount it faces in fines, they’ll take the short cut as often as not. After all, the cantaloupes we buy typically aren’t labeled with the name of the producer, so if they get busted, we’ll never be able to directly associate the two and modify our buying habits accordingly. And if one producer gets busted, other producers are still operating with the same short cuts, based on the same system of money saved.

    Even the threat of big lawsuits doesn’t always stop these actions, because these people are playing the odds, and the odds tend to favor the producer making the short cut, more often than not. Why else would they continue to take these short cuts?

    However, if the President of the company could be held criminally liable for his decision, and face possible prison time, tell me: would he still take the chance? Prison time for employees or owners (or both). Now, this changes the dynamics of the game.

    If Chiquita Brand corporate executives knew they faced a good chance of prison when caught, do you think they would have allowed the payments to continue?

    If the cantaloupe producers knew they could be held personally criminally liable for their decisions, do you think this might have made them evaluate their actions differently?

    Yeah, the supermarket chains do play a part in all of this. But making them liable for a completely separate corporation’s actions seems to make the whole thing a lot fuzzier, and leads one to wonder at what point will their accountability end.

    Instead, we consumers need to be the ones to penalize the supermarkets, and we do. We demanded supermarkets not sell eggs from certain producers, they heard us, and they stopped. We demanded they not sell bagged greens from other producers, and they stopped.

    Believe it or not, we do have considerable influence, even over power houses like Walmart, if we act in a united fashion.

    You say the supermarkets bring about the safety short cuts because they’ll only pay the producers so much. Well, and I hate to say it, it’s still the producers choice to take the lower pay and then implement the short cuts in order to make a profit. If all producers said no way, then the supermarket chain wouldn’t succeed, would they?

    It’s not fair, it’s not really ethical, but it is legal. And ultimately what holds sway in a court of law should be the law. Don’t like the law, change the law.

    Anyway, that’s my take. I’m not a lawyer, though, so take it for what its worth.

    • Foodie400

      As you say, there are no incentives to do the right thing, as the current laws stand. I doubt there is any political will to create those laws. Nor is the sequester helping the federal budget for food inspectors. So people will become sick from tainted food, no doubt about it. At least we have Food Safety News….

      • Bill Riedel

        As a retired food microbiologist with industry and regulatory experience I like much of your article; however, I think the problem of food (un)safety cannot be dealt with through inspection by regulators. Regulators walk a fine balance between enabling and disabling industry. There is even a certain amount of conflict of interest for the regulatory agencies – the more problems there are the bigger the budget. In my younger days I was in charge of a surveillance laboratory and one day I received a letter that insufficient contaminated samples were being found and the laboratory will be cancelled – in other words without problems foods there was no need for us. The experience was similar to the concept of the poverty pimp poem (google for it) – the food safety bureaucracy lives in a symbiotic-parasitic relation ship with unsafe food.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Oh, and a note about your baseball analogy:

    If the New York Yankees are banned from playing for a year, you forget the unintended consequences: fans are denied their sport, establishments surrounding the stadium, or dependent on the team playing, are hurt by the loss of business, other players who follow the rules are hurt even if they’re still paid, because they lose out on other opportunities by not playing, and so on.

    And the problems will still continue when the team starts back up again, because managers will still want more hits, more runs. The players will just get craftier unless they’re willing to say, no more.

    Darn, I sound so libertarian. Dan would be proud.

  • Sansher

    yea they need to change their way here. Especially the small midwest farmers (Posey Melon Outbreak)

  • CRS

    Hear, hear!

  • Amy

    I find it difficult to equate the use of PEDs in baseball, where there are few if any negative effects on consumers, to the discussion of liability in food supply chains, where consumers can get sick and die over negligence. Regardless, I agree that retailers should also bear some portion of the responsibility.

    • Acrimonious Bird

      An analogy does not imply equality.

  • Chuck

    A few people seem to have missed the point. People tend to do the things that bring them rewards – like a paycheck. Reward them for something without thinking through the consequences – like hits and runs for A-Rod, or lowest cost production regardless of the consequences (cantaloupe, anyone?) and you always get what you pay for. To change the outcome, change the rules.