A consolidated food industry brings you salad and chicken nuggets cheaper—and spreads deadly food-borne pathogens farther.
Escherichia coli bacteria, known as 0157:H7. Not all E. coli bacteria are dangerous, but 0157:H7 belongs to the Shiga toxin-producing group of pathogens (known as STEC), which can cause severe, and sometimes fatal, illness. By early October, 199 people in twenty-six states had fallen ill, resulting in 102 hospitalizations and thirty-one cases of kidney failure. Three people died, including a two-year-old boy in Utah.n the summer of 2006, consumers across the country began falling sick from a particularly nasty strain of
Government investigators eventually traced the bacteria to fresh spinach harvested from four fields in California’s Monterey and San Benito counties and processed by Natural Selection Foods, one of the nation’s biggest producers of bagged mixed salad. Though a relatively small amount of greens was involved—just one day’s worth of production—the tainted spinach made its way into seven different packing lines and thousands of bags of salad mix processed at one of the company’s two central facilities. It was sold under such well-known brands as Trader Joe’s, Earthbound Farm, and Natural Selection; 15,660 pounds were sold under the label Dole Baby Spinach. The spinach even made it overseas to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Iceland, as well as to Canada and Mexico.
Apart from the irony—a quintessential health food causes a deadly national outbreak of illness—the 2006 spinach scare was something of a watershed moment for so-called multistate food outbreaks, which began to pick up in tempo around that time.
That same year, seventy-one people in five states were sickened by food from Taco Bell, and 183 people in twenty-one states suffered infections from Salmonella bacteria on tomatoes. Over the next five years, the number of multistate outbreaks per year more than doubled, from thirteen in 2006 to twenty-nine in 2010, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Many of these outbreaks were headline-grabbing national food scares involving trusted brands and popular foods: Veggie Booty (salmonella, 2007); Kroger’s ground beef (E. coli, 2008); Nestlé Toll House Cookie Dough (E. coli, 2009); eggs (salmonella, 2010); cantaloupes (involving the Listeria bacteria, 2011); sprouts (E. coli, 2012); Foster Farms frozen chicken (salmonella, 2013); caramel apples (listeria, 2014); Blue Bell ice cream (listeria, 2015); and cucumbers (salmonella, 2013, 2014, and 2015). In the fall of 2015, at least fifty-two people in nine states fell ill after eating at Chipotle restaurants, the paragon of “healthful” fast-casual food. From 2010 to 2014, the CDC reported 120 total multistate outbreaks, or an average of twenty-four per year. By comparison, from 1973 to 1980, the median annual number of multistate outbreaks was just 2.5.
While some of the rise in reported outbreaks is due to better detection—the CDC now uses sophisticated DNA fingerprinting of pathogens and a national system called PulseNet to identify outbreaks—a growing coterie of researchers, as well as the CDC, say that modern industrial food processing is also to blame. According to the CDC’s website, “Changing patterns in global food production … combined with increasing integration and consolidation of agriculture and food production can result in a contaminated food rapidly causing a geographically widespread outbreak.”
In other words, the same hyperefficient distribution system that brings you convenient and affordable salad greens and all the chicken nuggets you can eat can just as efficiently deliver E. coli, salmonella, and other dangerous bugs to your plate. Moreover, today’s industrialized food production processes carry other public health risks. Antibiotic use, for example, which is still endemic in so-called factory farming, is contributing to the rise of drug-resistant super-germs. And the reliance on monoculture—the cultivation of a single species to help standardize production—is leading to a potentially dangerous lack of biodiversity. “Consolidation has eliminated redundancies in the food system in the name of efficiency,” says Mary Hendrickson, assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “But redundancies help protect us.” Today’s industrial food system has brought American consumers a wealth of affordable and convenient foods, but this benefit may come with a price that’s not listed on our grocery bills: food that’s not only the blandly uniform product of a few mega-sized producers, processors, and retailers but also isn’t as safe as we think it is.