When Food Goes Wrong

Publication: The Washington Post

Author: Ezra Klein


09/30/2009 - About a year ago, Lehman Brothers collapsed, throwing the financial world and the global economy into chaos. What made Lehman's downfall so damaging, and created so much terror around the near-implosions of many other Wall Street behemoths, was the oft-repeated idea that they were all "too big to fail." But in reality, these banks were actually too interconnected to fail. They had all made bets with each other, and guaranteed each other's loans, and generally were so deeply intertwined that the end of one could mean the end of all.

As it is in finance, so it is in food. In late 2008 and early 2009, the Peanut Corporation of America shipped peanuts tainted with the Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. That's not a good thing, of course, but it shouldn't have been too big a deal. Pull some peanuts off the shelves and go on about your day.

If only. The recall involved 3,913 products from 361 companies. Nine people died and about 700 got sick. And that's probably wildly understated: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that only one in 38 cases of salmonella is reported.

This is the modern face of tainted food: not a bad egg or a piece of rotted meat, but contamination at a production plant that serves hundreds of companies making thousands of foods. We have a system that does a much better job of making sure most food is safe but is much more vulnerable when something does go wrong. Outbreaks are hard to contain because they're hard to trace. Consumers know not to eat peanuts during a peanut outbreak, but they don't know to avoid foods that contain production compounds laced with peanuts. Grocers are caught flat-footed because they don't know whether a cereal bar includes items from a particular peanut producer. "We have had a lot of consolidation in the food industry," says Erik Olson, director of [food and consumer product safety for the Pew Health Group]. "A few decades ago, there were very few situations where a single factory could influence the national or international food supply."

Read the full article When Food Goes Wrong on the Washington Post's Web site.

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