Entire food system should be accountable for outbreaks

Arresting the Jensen brothers without indicting anyone else in the food system is like arresting Richard Eggers to curb the excesses of the global financial crisis.

Eggers, a 68-year-old Des Moines resident, who gained national attention after being fired by Wells Fargo & Co. in July 2012, was featured on the Colbert Report (video below for North Americans) in a segment satirizing the federal government’s failure to jail a cantaloupesingle high-level banker who helped precipitate the global financial crisis.

Eggers was fired after the nation’s largest bank by market value learned that he had been arrested 49 years ago for putting a cardboard cutout of a dime in a Carlisle laundry machine. He is one of an estimated 3,000 low-level bank employees who were fired last year under employment regulations meant to deter the kind of high-level excesses that helped precipitate the global financial crisis.

The Jensen’s case is far more serious, involving the death of 33 people and sickening 143 from Listeria in cantaloupe in 2011, but focusing on the farmers who received stellar audit reports lets the system off the hook.

And the system is at fault.

The nation’s food safety system, especially for produce, is a patchwork of third-party audits, personal assurances, and profit before protection.

The government – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – says it’s sending a message, but it’s sending the wrong one.

Eric Jensen, 37, and Ryan Jensen, 33, were accused of six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and aiding and abetting.

The Jensens should be held accountable, as should everyone else in the food system, including the auditors that gave the Jensens a big thumbs up and the retailers who rely on paperwork in the absence of evidence. Going after the weakest link only displays a decrepit and ineffectual system.

Some companies – to their credit – are going beyond the paper trail and using their own staff along with outside expertise to build a credible food safety system; some companies really are better.

And they should brag about it.

Because as a consumer, I have no way of knowing whether one cantaloupe was raised, harvested, packed and shipped more hygienically than another. Retailers insist all food is safe, but weekly outbreaks, especially with repeat offenders, shows the system is broken.

(Meeting government standards implies no sort of microbial food safety; that is a tactic to deflect responsibility, what some call the Pinto effect.)

The FDA may be flexing its tiny muscles against the weak kids, but is doing nothing visible about that troubled third-party system in food, where the company selling the food is paying the auditor to approve the safety of the food.

The best producers won’t rely on government and will get ahead of the food safety curve.