Friday, June 19, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and "Statements"

It might just be observer bias, but it seems like food recalls have become much more frequent over the course of my adult life.

Superficially, this might initially seem like a good thing: finding and pulling contaminated food is better for everyone, right? Well... yes and no, but mostly no.

It is true that it's better to have the stuff that's definitely connected with food-borne illness off of store shelves. It is not true that this is a good sign. It is, instead, a sign that our problems with food contamination are becoming worse and worse.

Recalls, you see, in a manner unsettlingly similar to that described in Fight Club, don't happen as a result of regulation or inspection. They happen after consumer complaints reach a certain critical mass. Recalls are initiated when the number of poisoned customers begins to approach the minimum threshold for the FDA or USDA to take notice.

Today's recall - cookie dough contaminated with a particularly virulent feedlot-bred fecal bacterium* - highlights another facet of this increasingly common phenomenon: blatant, outright, baldfaced lying by the perpetrators.

Nestle's statement said : "While the E. coli strain implicated in this investigation has not been detected in our product, the health and safety of our consumers is paramount, so we are initiating this voluntary recall." A spokesperson for Nestle, one Laurie MacDonald, apparently added to Nestle's release, claiming that "The health and safety of our consumers is our No. 1 priority."

Without going into deeper detail regarding the manifold ways in which a corporate industrial food system is inherently bad for the health and safety of consumers**, I'd just like to point out that if health and safety were indeed a number one priority, or even particularly high on the list of priorities, it is easily, even trivially within the capability of an entity as large as Nestle to:
  1. Test each outgoing batch of "food products" before sending them to market,
  2. Enact stricter sanitation measures to prevent contamination in the first place, and
  3. Use ingredient sources which don't include quantities of shit sufficient to contaminate entire batches of cookie dough with fecal bacteria.
The moral of this story is the same old tune that all of us food-conscious bloggers have been singing for several years now, or at least since Eric Schlosser made it visible and Michael Pollan made it hip: don't eat food that's manufactured instead of cooked, and don't believe any claims about food that are made by plastic packaging or plastic people.

* - E. coli 0157:H7, a nasty little bug that has received no little attention in recent years thanks in part to its appearance in Fast Food Nation
** - I refer you not only to Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma here, which are obvious, but also to... well, honestly, I don't know how to hyperlink an entire social movement, for those who aren't already in it. Start with some good news and tips - The Ethicurean - and some good science - look for food-related items at ScienceBlogs (you might consult posts like this or these).


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