Food safety sucks | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Food safety sucks

Posted By on July 28, 2009, 3:36 PM

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Thesis: Our food monitoring system in this county sucks.

You want evidence of that claim?


I was asked to write the "Hits and Misses" feature this week and was hunting around for good and bad news of any kind. I simply searched "utah" in GoogleNews, sorted by date, and started scanning hundreds of headlines.

I came upon this story. Six people hospitalized, eight more just sick from salmonella believed to be tied to nearly a half-million pounds of raw ground beef that was recalled last week.

The story mentions Utah as an effected state, but doesn't say what stores might have sold it. I don't recall any local news media reporting a recent recall, so I hopped into action. I just wanted to know, Why is Utah included in this recall? That should be a simple question, right?

First, I searched for Utah locations of the store mentioned in that news story, Kings Soopers. No luck.

I went to FDA's recall site and couldn't find anything about the recall there. I later remembered that's because USDA does meat and dairy recalls, not FDA, but I didn't remember that immediately. USDA is also mentioned in that story, but I'd forgotten that, too. How many consumers know that?

With more searching, I found the Colorado Department of Health's press release regarding the recall, which also did not answer the question, Why is Utah included in this recall? So I called them three times. A lady in the media relations office told me her office does not know why Utah is on the list, only that that information came from USDA. Their head media guy later called me back to say their press release "certainly doesn't" mention Utah, which of course, dear readers, you can see that it does. Needless to say, he could not answer my question and referred me elsewhere, including the Utah Department of Health (more on that later).

But in the Colorado news release there is mention of City Market as another effected chain of stores. I went to their Web site to look for Utah locations. No luck.

Eventually I found the press release for the recall from USDA here. Their press release does not answer the question, Why is Utah included in this recall? So I called them. No one could talk to me immediately, but I got a call back after an hour or so.

In the meantime, I called "the company," as the USDA press release refers to them, which turns out to be Kroger headquarters in Cincinati. The lady there said because this was a "regional recall" she also could not say why Utah is on the list. She said Utah has 48 Smith's stores and one Kings Sooper - in Moab - but she couldn't say whether only the Kings store was effected, or the entire network of 48 Smiths stores. She advised me to call media relations for Smith's and Kings and gave me their phone numbers. Kroger, of course, owns all three chains of stores, Kings, City Market, and Smith's.

I left a voicemail on the Smiths line. A lady at the number I was given for King's media relations said Smith's stores were not effected but the one King's store in Moab was. She didn't tell me with great specificity how she knows that. Should I trust that a lady who works for King's knows fully what is going on at Smith's? I think it's my job not to trust that. My pursuit continued for more solid information.

So then USDA called me back. Media relator Peggy Rick pointed me to the place on USDA's web site where you can find effected retail locations. I felt sheepish. I should have known about that, but I can't say that I expect consumers to have found that.

I asked her if Smith's stores had been inspected and were found to be safe, and she said that is not public information. A store only makes it onto a list if they are found to be selling recalled food. I asked Peggy if there is anyway for consumers to be assured that a particular Smiths was inspected and that it was determined that they are not selling recalled meat. She said there is not, and referred me to Kroger. I said, so we have to trust the company? She said yes.

Step back for one moment: You'll notice that under Moab on the USDA list of effected stores, a City Market, not Kings, is listed. Now, dear readers, it kinda weirds me out that I confirmed later that the store in Moab is indeed a City Market, not a Kings, though parent-company Kroger's media contact and King's counterpart indicated it was a Kings when I talked to them. What else do they not know about their stores?

Nevertheless, good, Smith's seems to be unaffected. That's good news for most Utahns, at least until the next recall. But I'm not sure the fine people of Moab will be too impressed with my "good" news.

So a coworker told me to call the Moab Times-Independent to see if they have done any reporting on the recall. Editor Lisa Church said they never received any word from USDA nor anyone else regarding the recall.

Utah Department of Health has no press release on their Web site and Southeastern Utah Health District Health Department said they didn't know about the recall. Besides, the lady at Southeastern said, a beef recall is the domain of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

If you search for the word "recall" on the Ag Department's Web site you find a page with links that send you back to FDA and USDA. And around and around we go.

So folks: the corporate food giants are so big they don't know what is going on in their stores, the government watch dogs are subdivided so finding information about all dangerous food requires multiple bookmarks and is not always where you might expect it to be, local authorities sometimes simply repeat information they get from the feds without completely understanding it themselves, the media are burdened with dozens of these things that usually seem no different than the recall from last month. Even if the media or consumers do look into it, there are plenty of sand traps in their way.

While I did eventually find my answer, this was an exceptionally difficult day in the muck and I can't imagine many consumers - or even media types - would go to this much trouble for the information, even if diarrhea and possibly death are the potential consequences.

How can anyone keep up? This was just one of 50 food recalls issued by FDA and USDA in July alone.

Here's the kicker: if you did your own Googling and found that Smiths did have a beef recall recently, note that that was the Swift recall that began in June completely separate from the Kroger recall I'm investigating above.

One final note, you may or may not, want to see Kroger's corporate recall list. Check it out, if you have the stomach for it.

Update July 29, 2009: I just found an AP story on that discusses this recall and mentions that Utah was impacted. But it doesn't go to the trouble that I did to find out precisely where and who in Utah was actually impacted.  

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