Why you should care
Because this has been a banner year for food recalls, but that might actually be a good thing.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? After 57 people in 16 states were sickened by beef thought to be contaminated with a salmonella strain this week, the Tolleson meat company in Arizona recalled 6.5 million pounds of raw beef. That includes hundreds of products marked with “EST. 267” inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection mark, and it constitutes the biggest recall in several years. But beef wasn’t the only food to be recalled: In the past week, 89,000 pounds of ham were recalled due to listeria after one person died. And an egg-borne salmonella outbreak grew, with 24 more cases across five states despite last month’s recall of contaminated eggs from Alabama’s Gravel Ridge Farms.
Why does it matter? This year has seen a spike in food recalls, and that could lead to even more regulations aimed at protecting consumers from shoddy factory and food production practices. Tolleson was called out by federal regulators last year for “egregious” and “inhumane” livestock conditions. Last month, the USDA issued draft rules that could see future recalls routinely name not just the food’s manufacturer but also the retailers that might sell the tainted products, in an attempt to better protect the public. This is occasionally done already but isn’t yet common practice.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
The year of food poisoning. There has been a jump in reported tainted food this year, from Goldfish crackers to lettuce. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Experts say it’s at least partially the result of advances in technology that allow the Centers for Disease Control to identify more threats. In some cases, such as with Goldfish, a swift recall prevented any reported illnesses. But there are more culprits to consider, like food chains that include more imports and Americans’ love of pre-chopped fruits and vegetables.
Long-term impact. A recent study from the University of Georgia found that companies feel the pain for years after a recall. Data from beef recalls from 1996 to 2016 showed that cattle prices took a hit for as long as two years after the incident. Not only that, but multiple recalls can add up: In 1998, farmers lost $454 million in revenue after a jump in recalls over the previous two years. So far, it’s too soon to tell how the latest recalls will hit the farming industry’s bottom line. But the study suggests that because such recalls can be so expensive, it’s producers who ought to invest more to prevent them.
International impact. American meat producers are already on shaky ground after President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese products led to retaliatory tariffs on U.S. beef. Beijing had only lifted a 14-year ban on American beef imports due to mad cow disease in June 2017, and farmers were already struggling to gain a foothold in the world’s second-largest beef market (after the U.S.) — but at least the newness of the market for American farmers means these tariffs may not hugely affect their bottom lines. Meanwhile, U.S. pork producers have been hit with high retaliatory tariffs from China and Mexico this year, as well as recalls of 89,096 pounds of ham this month owing to potential listeria contamination and 42,246 pounds of sausage in September that may have been contaminated with plastic.
Safety at home. Unlike E. coli or listeria contamination, it’s not actually against the rules to sell meat contaminated with salmonella. Heating salmonella past 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills the bacteria, so if the meat is cooked it shouldn’t be a problem — a loophole the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has used since the Nixon era to explain the discrepancy, despite protests from public health watchdogs. As it stands, authorities wait for salmonella cases to pop up and then investigate which product may have caused it before asking companies to recall the food voluntarily. That only applies to meat and poultry, though — fish, cereal, produce and other food products are under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, which makes recalls mandatory.
WHAT TO READ
Foodborne Illness May Be on the Rise. Here’s Why, by Susan Scutti at CNN
“The proportion of Americans considered to be at risk for foodborne illness is also increasing — yet many people do not know or understand that they might be at risk.”
Can Twitter and Yelp Really Help Spot a Salmonella Outbreak?, by Brady Dennis in the Washington Post
“Public health officials are quick to acknowledge that using social media to detect foodborne illness outbreaks is no panacea. It can be time-consuming, with unpredictable results. But when it works, it can give investigators what they need most: a head start.”
WHAT TO WATCH
How Chipotle Made Hundreds of People Barf
“In multistate cases, the CDC can identify the specific source of food poisoning only about half the time.”
Watch on Vox on YouTube:
Chasing Outbreaks: How Safe Is Our Food?
“You look back on when changes happened, and it’s always after a disaster. It’d be great to figure out a way to make those changes before that even happened.”
Watch on New York Times on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Albumen at work. Salmonella is often associated with eggs, and its most common form is salmonella enterica, which causes intestinal infection. Intestinal problems thought to be caused by salmonella were so strongly associated with duck eggs in the 1920s and 30s that Americans all but stopped eating them, making way for chicken eggs to catch up in popularity. While duck eggs have largely been relegated to foodies’ plates, they still cause problems: In the U.K. in 2010, scores were sickened and at least one person died in a duck egg salmonella outbreak.