Friday, August 01, 2008

Is the Produce Industry Having an Identity Crisis?

Although I've tracked it very closely, I've up until now hesitated to blog about the Salmonella Saintpaul produce crisis for one reason: the culprit keeps changing.

Here's a simplified (and highly editorialized) chronology:

  • People start getting sick from a rare form of Salmonella, local health sleuths hypothesize that tomatoes linked all the victims (they ate salsa? tomatoes have carried Salmonella before)
  • the FDA issues a warning: don't eat Roma or Round tomatoes, on-the-vine and cherry are okay!
  • widespread consumer panic ensues. What's a Roma? Aren't all tomatoes round? What's that in my Caprese salad?
  • the FDA quickly narrows the crisis to Roma or Red tomatoes grown in Florida and Mexico, because only those regions were growing at the time... meanwhile the sickened count grows.
  • Wait a minute. Who knows where their tomatoes were grown? Widespread panic (and tomato avoidance) continues
  • The FDA posts (somewhere) a list of states that are 'cleared' ... okay, but I still don't know where my tomatoes came from. More hospital cases.
  • By now the hullaballoo from the tomato industry is deafening. No contaminated tomatoes can be found and the sickness toll creeps higher. What about tortillas? What about peppers? Maybe it was cilantro in the salsa?
  • Suddenly Jalapenos are under suspicion
  • Then: a miracle! A lone Jalapeno pepper is found in a Texas processing plant with the Salmonella Saintpaul fingerprint (CSI: produce?). But no-one's saying where it was grown. it was the peppers after all!
  • Maybe
  • Then, another breakthrough... the guilty jalapeno pepper is traced to a farm in Mexico. US industry breathes an exhausted sigh of relief, the origin is finally identified.
  • But wait. Hold on. It's serrano peppers! the Salmonella strain is found in the irrigation water in a Serrano pepper farm in a different state in Mexico. So there were 2 culprits! (Maybe they were working together?)
  • Hold the presses again ... the Mexican growers shout. The water in that water tank hasn't been used for 2 months.

At this point everyone is either sick or tired, or both. This whodunnit is more twisted than an Agatha Chritie play.

It certainly looks like tomatoes got an unfair rap. They (probably) never made anyone sick, and the industry lost a lot of money while consumers recoiled from potentially 'killer tomatoes'. It made for great headlines - but there wasn't more than a hypothesis. Panic leapt from one produce category to another with every announcement. Regulation is likely. Was it the serrano, or the jalapeno? Maybe they both went through a processing facility that somehow cross contaminated them? Or maybe Saintpaul is actually quite common ... and we're finding it because we're looking for it?

Even without the answer, what can we learn from this dreadful debacle?
  1. It's impossible right now for consumers to know where their produce comes from. So they stop buying it all together until the problem goes away. Identity would be a good thing.
  2. The industry demonstrated that tracing a product to its point of origin is not impossible ... but it's hard work, and you wouldn't want to do it every day if you're a grower or processor. If it was instantaneous and effortless, that would be a good thing too.
  3. Other industries have proven that it is perfectly possible to trace products quickly and accurately - without the government telling them to do it. Take the semiconductor industry. End customers (like Dell or Toyota) can trace a defective chip back to the exact wafer it came from. Why the difference? Because the customers demanded it - it made sense for their business, and they have the power to demand it.
  4. Other industries have also taught us that more government regulation on traceability is not necessarily effective either. The FDA and State Board of Pharmacies have been trying to force RFID-based ePedigree on the pharmaceutical industry. So far without success.
  5. In spite of the millions of dollars growers and processors have invested in state-of-the-art clean facilities and HACCP practices in the US and Mexico - consumers are afraid, and in the dark. Which is the brand of tomatoes we all trust to be safe? (or put another way, who is the Volvo of produce?) Where is the "good housekeeping seal of approval" that tells consumers - these guys are traceable, and they do everything by the book?
And finally this nugget. Saint Paul is the patron saint of journalists. Too ironic, no?