Sometimes, I must say, the “mechanism” that publicly responds to outbreaks of foodborne illness just seems to lack much passion. It does not seem to know how to express a sense of urgency. It has a seemingly endless ability to make every event sound the same. The “mechanism” I speak of is the entire chain of state and local health authorities along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which are the two federal agencies that lead multistate investigations, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which does the fancy lab work. There is no better example of what I am talking about than the current hepatitis A outbreak linked to Townsend Farms mixed berries. As soon as I was reading that this outbreak involved a rare HAV strain more likely to be found in the Middle Africa or the Middle East, I thought we’d see some serious response. I thought we might hear from the FDA Commissioner, who rarely talks food, or somebody important at the CDC. Surely some important federal official would get out there and say we draw the line at letting rare strains of diseases from the Middle East or North Africa cross America shores. Or something like that. But all we got was the “mechanism” going through all of its routine gears. To my knowledge not one important federal official even commented on the peculiar delay by Oregon’s Townsend Farms in recalling their poisonous “Organic Antioxidant Blend” of frozen berries. News about this outbreak got out first in Colorado by about noon on May 31. All of the state’s public health spokesmen were out warning of the hepatitis A strain rarely seen in the Western Hemisphere that was thought to have come from those Townsend Farms berries. Federal agencies followed. Costco, once again a responsible party in one of these little dramas, also said it was removing the poison berries from its shelves. But there was nothing out of Townsend Farms, except an inane comment one of its officers made to the Oregonian newspaper to the effect that Oregonians did not need to worry. Not until June 3 did Townsend recall its product, and then errors in their press releases required it be done again on June 4. As a result, it was not until June 4 that Food Safety News had a truly comprehensive story, written by Gretchen Goetz. Usually in a major outbreak with illnesses and a recall, you’d see that sort of story within 24 hours, not five days later. It was at that point that we learned the poison berry mix was not only distributed by Costco, but also by Harris Teeter stores in eastern U.S. And the number of states involved in the outbreak, along with the number of illnesses, was already on the rise. Three days later on June 7, FSN‘s James Andrews drove into the issue hard with a story that looked at how a mix of berries from Chile, Mexico, and Turkey gets stamped with that big green USDA Organic label. A Costco lawyer, again being responsible, said the virus has been traced back to pomegranate seeds sold in Turkey. But how do we know Townsend Farms, which gets its organic certifications from both the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Oregon Tilth, a third party certifier, is certain those Turkish pomegranate seeds were grown under proper Organic standards? The short answer I took from the excellent reporting James did on the subject is that we trust ’em, but we don’t verify. It seems USDA standards allow organic producers to do their own certifying of their foreign inputs. Gee, I wonder of the organic industry would go along with a similar system for genetically engineered food producers? I don’t think so. Here’s the money quote in James story: “We can’t question it if another certifier says a place is organic-certified,” said Brenda Brook, organic program manager for the WSDA. “The thing that gets confusing from the consumer standpoint is when something’s from Turkey, for example, but it’s certified by a U.S. firm. [The organic certification program] is really just a chain of custody.” Chain of custody, I like that. Usually I see that term used when criminal law might be in play. As we also reported as recently as Friday, the number of people infected with this very unpleasant liver disease has reached at least 79, so far in eight western states. Many more have been exposed to this foreign virus, and returning to their local Costco stores for the vaccine that might head off the disease. How many might we be talking about? A lawyer I know — I’ll let you guess his name — says Costco sold 330,000 bags of the potentially contaminated berries. That could translate in waiting lines for vaccines, and almost certainly more HAV victims. We’d like to think we would soon be hearing from whomever FDA has put on the ground in Turkey to get to the bottom of this supply chain. Maybe, it will be someone who speaks with a little passion.