Well, here we go again, and again.
Just as the contaminated-spinach fiasco seemed to be settling down, a new scare about contaminated lettuce cropped up to take its place. That situation came atop fears about bottled carrot juice and a recall of ground meat. In all these instances, E. coli was suspected as the contaminating agent - except for the carrot juice, which apparently caused botulism poisoning.
What gives here? To some extent, enough publicity has been generated about bad-food situations that an abundance of caution has set in. The lettuce recall was the voluntary action of the Nunes Co. to pull back its Foxy-brand product, some of which went into retail channels, some into food service.
Initiation of the 8,500-carton recall goes to the credit of Nunes. The less prudent might turn a blind eye to the situation, assuming product would cycle through in a couple of days without incident. After all, Nunes discovered E. coli by means of its own testing, and that testing couldn't distinguish between dangerous and benign strains of the bacteria, the latter of which is more common by far. And that proved to be just the case.
Unfortunately, no matter how responsible Nunes was in recalling lettuce, incidents such as these provide a constant drumbeat of bad news about food safety, which, over time, conspire to erode the public's confidence in food's safety. Loss of confidence is sure to have a deleterious effect on sales of supermarket food categories, especially high-margin fresh product.
All this brings us to the topic broached in this space last week, namely the lack of coordinated governmental regulatory oversight aimed at preventing incidents such as these. Let's take a look at the early response of the Food and Drug Administration to the lettuce incident. According to the Associated Press, an FDA spokesman said the FDA was aware of the recall, but knew no details of it. Somehow, that doesn't inspire too much confidence, nor does the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched two packing plants in the Salinas Valley in connection with the earlier spinach incident. It seems that the FBI might have more important matters on its plate than to examine what can be no more than the accidental introduction of a contaminant into spinach. Indeed, at the moment the FBI is spread thin as it strains to assist other agencies in domestic intelligence-gathering activities. The FBI isn't a big agency. It has 31,000 employees in total. By comparison, New York City has about 45,000 on its police force.
Perhaps with seemingly disjointed efforts such as these in mind, a number of federal legislators are in favor of creating a Food Safety Agency, which would centralize food-safety monitoring.
"Twelve agencies are [currently] responsible for food-safety inspection and labeling," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week. "It doesn't come as a shock that many of them are not on the same page."
Clearly, more food-safety regulation is in this nation's future. It's just a question of when Congress will muster the will to make it happen. Indeed, as you'll see on Page 1, National Grocer Association's Tom Zaucha is already predicting that "overregulation" could be in the offing. Maybe, but regulation tends to be proportionate to the harm it's intended to ameliorate.