Who Do You Trust, Part 2

May 16, 2009

This note is not the one I originally planned as a follow-up to my earlier post on trust, but sometimes events provide their own story line.  The New York Times has an interesting, and disturbing, article on the growing problem of food safety. In essence, many prepared food manufacturers are unable to assure the safety of their supplies, and are leaving it up to the consumer to ensure the finished product is safe.

The frozen pot pies that sickened an estimated 15,000 people with salmonella in 2007 left federal inspectors mystified. At first they suspected the turkey. Then they considered the peas, carrots and potatoes.

The pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. It also tried cooking the vegetables at high temperatures, a strategy the industry calls a “kill step,” to wipe out any lingering microbes. But the vegetables turned to mush in the process.

So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The “food safety” instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

The thing that is really quite striking about this is that the manufacturers are taking this approach, not because they are evil jerks (although they may be), but because they can’t figure out a way to ensure the safety of their own supply chains:

In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show.

You should perhaps take a moment to re-read that last sentence, above: some of the manufacturers don’t know where the ingredients they are putting in food come from.  We have seen this kind of thing in the medical field, also.  Last year, the blood thinner Heparin was recalled because of contamination, after the drug was implicated in 81 deaths.  The contamination was traced to raw materials imported from China, much of it collected from small, unregulated producers.  In both cases, the development of longer, more complex supply chains, in order to reduce costs, has led to a situation which is apparently opaque even to the manufacturers, never mind the average consumer.  And the problem is only getting worse:

Yet the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.

Recently, we have seen a salmonella scare because of contaminated peanuts, not usually considered a risk for that pathogen.

Something about the system is clearly not working; yet it is not obviously in the economic interest of any single producer to act alone to fix the problem.  In fact, as long as it’s not easy for the consumer to trace the source of food-borne illness, the producers have a considerable incentive to bury their mistakes — sometimes literally.

The classical economic argument holds that in a free market of informed producers and consumers, the “invisible hand” will act to correct quality problems: if you get sick every time you eat bread from the village baker, you’ll probably switch to a different supplier, or a different food.  It is an elegant, lovely theory; it just doesn’t apply terribly well to many aspects of the world we live in today.


%d bloggers like this: