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.