Big Food Recalls Once Again Reveal the Hidden Costs of our Big Food System
By Rich Bindell
Back in March, we tried to imagine through a short video what it would be like if the President got a wake-up call about his proposed food safety budget cuts and how they might affect one his favorite meals: a hamburger. On second thought, make that a turkey burger. Cargill Value Added Meats Retail, a subsidiary of Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, just recalled 36 MILLION POUNDS of ground turkey products because of possible Salmonella contamination. This is exactly why it’s not a good idea to cut critical food and safety protections from the federal budget.
Cargill, the third largest turkey processor in the United States, is recalling the turkey products because of a strain of bacteria called Salmonella Heidelberg, which has sickened 76 consumers and caused one death. The fact that Salmonella Heidelberg is antibiotic-resistant certainly reinforces the need for ending the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production.
Tracing the contamination back to its source — no easy task when you’re talking about 36 million pounds of processed food distributed to 26 states — has been the task of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in conjunction with USDA and state health agencies. In case you’re wondering how long it takes to figure out where food contamination originated, in this case it took five months since the first reported case of food illness was reported until they linked the public health threat to Cargill’s ground turkey.
Food recalls like this one have become typical in an age of consolidation in agriculture and food — when 58 percent of the poultry market is controlled by the top four firms. Big firms like Cargill brag about their market share in their quarterly reports, but this type of marketplace domination is putting consumers at risk and farmers out of business. There are hidden costs to doing business this big, and one of them is public health. And, we can only rely so much on our federal agencies to provide food safety if their budgets are being cut. They are strained now; what will their challenges be like next year if they have less funding and more responsibility?
This is the reason our Food & Water Watch organizers are currently out on the road, covering 20 states in 34 days, and talking to people about the Farm Bill. If we want to fix this broken food system — one that is controlled by food processing middle men, not farmers — we need to make better farm and food policy, and to fund critical programs that protect consumers.
As you sit down to dinner tonight, think about where you want your food to come from: a grower in your region of the country or a processing plant on the other side of it that’s handling millions of pounds of your dinner.
UPDATE: Check out our own Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, as she makes an appearance on Democracy Now to discuss the Cargill turkey recall and how federal government’s role in tracing back the illness to its source.