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August 23rd, 2010

CNN Goes Consolidated Egg Shopping

CNN's Brian Todd interviews our own Patty Lovera, food director, about how food contamination—like the Wright Egg salmonella outbreak—can spread so quickly. None of the eggs in the background were affected by the recall.

The Wright County Egg recall has continued to raise interesting questions about food safety issues across our industrial food system. Various news stations have been contacting our offices for the past week to ask how food contamination can spread so quickly across the country. CNN’s Brian Todd asked our food director, Patty Lovera, to meet him at a grocery store just outside of downtown Washington, D.C., to discuss the recall (we’ll provide the link as soon as the story airs), so I tagged along.

Not surprisingly, none of the major chain grocery stores in the metropolitan area would agree to let CNN do the interview in their egg aisles. Thankfully, a small, independent grocery store in Silver Spring, Maryland agreed to let us do the interview in their egg aisle.

Patty has received many requests for interviews over the past several days. She told me that, for most part, they usually ask the same questions: How does Salmonella get into our egg supply? Could this outbreak have been prevented? What do labels advertising “cage-free” and “organic” mean when it comes to food safety? How is it possible for one outbreak to affect so many states so quickly?

The last question represents a slight shift in the way the media is covering this particular crisis. During the media frenzies of past outbreaks, including contamination in beef, peanuts and spinach, no one asked Patty how consolidation and industrial-sized food production might play a role. Now, people want to know more about how food industry consolidation—a small number of large companies controlling an entire sector of the market—is a factor. So, while I watched Patty talk about food contamination with Brian Todd—something she has done many times—I witnessed the first time she was able to address the role of market concentration in outbreaks such as this one.

While the current salmonella outbreak in the egg industry wasn’t much of a shock to food safety experts, its size and scope demonstrate just how quickly contamination can spread when one company controls the production and distribution of an enormous amount of food. And this is the case throughout our food system, including meat, poultry, pork and dairy.

Food & Water Watch’s Western Regional Director Elanor Starmor wrote a blog explaining this market concentration, where she discusses federal food policy (USDA/DOJ hearings and preparing for the 2011 Farm Bill) and the importance of having the freedom to choose local food options.

The mainstream media might be beginning to understand why it’s important for consumers to have local food choices from regional farmers. In addition to the conversation about what we eat, we also need to address the subject of how we grow, process and distribute our food, and the media will be an important part of this discussion. It’s unfortunate that an outbreak of this size has to happen before we can make a positive change. Perhaps, we can use this opportunity to re-examine our food system and how it’s governed, and take a step in the right direction. As always, it never hurts to take action right now.

-Rich Bindell

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