Politics of the Plate


By Barry Estabrook

Fresh Express Bags Food Safety Trifecta

In the past three months, Fresh Express, a unit of Chiquita Brands International, managed to claim food contamination’s Triple Crown.

Sustainable Food News reports that earlier this month, the company, known for its bagged “ready-to-eat” salad greens, recalled nearly 3,000 cases of its Veggie Lover’s Salad mix because of possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

This followed a recall of romaine lettuce sold in Canada last month that might have been contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. In May, the packer recalled bagged greens from 26 states because of the potential of contamination with Salmonella.

In all cases the suspect products were bags of prewashed and cut greens. One hopes that senators putting final touches on the Food Safety Modernization Act will take note: It is the large produce companies distributing packaged goods across the country that are endangering the health of consumers. It is not the small producers and local growers at farmers’ markets—though they may end up paying for the problem through increased fees and unnecessary regulations. 

Wanna See a Grown PR Man Squirm?

Then take a look at this news clip from San Francisco CBS television affiliate KPIX, where Tyrone Jue, a spokesman with the city’s Public Utilities Commission, tries to put a positive spin on reports that the sewage sludge it has given away to gardeners as “organic biosolids” contains arsenic, lead, mercury, flame retardants, antibacterial drugs, and detergents.

“The presence of something doesn’t necessarily indicate a public health hazard,” said Jue, after a series of tough questions from reporter Simon Perez. As Perez bears in, you begin to feel sorry for Jue, who after all is just taking flack for his superiors.

The story broke after John Stauber of the Food Rights Network presented his group’s findings to the commission. “The sludge product that the PUC has given away for free to Bay Area home and school gardens is contaminated,” said Stauber. “Who wants to take toxic sewage sludge and put it on their farm or garden?”

A good question, and one that San Francisco’s mayor and city council should have the honesty to answer directly. 

What is Killing the Lobsters?

As I write from a rented cottage by the shore in southern Massachusetts, four lobsters rest in the refrigerator awaiting their lead role on tonight’s dinner table. But all is not well for the iconic crustaceans in these waters. Catches have become so low from Cape Cod to Long Island Sound, the southernmost part of lobsters’ range, that earlier this summer, officials were considering imposing a five-year moratorium on fishing for them.

The closure did not come to pass, but that still left the question of what was happening to the lobsters. One theory blamed warming water temperatures in the region. Now, a researcher at the University of Connecticut has found another possible culprit that is familiar to anyone who has been following food safety news lately: the controversial plastic compound bisphenol-A, which has been found to disrupt the human endocrine system and has been banned for some uses.

The researcher, Hans Laufer, told reporter Judy Benson of The Day that his research, the first of its kind, connected that chemical and others to a bacterial infection in lobsters with shell disease, a potentially fatal condition that weakens their shells and leaves them with black lesions. He found residues of the chemicals, which enter the water through sewage treatment plants and land-fill runoff, in more than half the lobsters he examined. Laufer noted that about 60 percent of the bisphenol-A produced eventually ends up in the ocean.

So take your choice: global warming or industrial pollutants—either way human activity is ultimately to blame.

Posted in Food Politics, Produce


  1. Alex M. Pruteanu said...

    Excellent post. Also, isn’t there some sort of irradiation going on in those bagged, pre-washed veggies? Or some kind of chemical insertion for preservation of freshness? Until recently, the only bagged product I purchased was pre-washed baby spinach. I gave that up not too long ago on the advice of a friend. Despite my efforts to stay abreast of "greenwashing" by corporations, I was ignorant enough to keep buying bagged spinach. I am constantly on guard, constantly trying to dodge bullets in our food supply. It’s cumbersome and obtuse. We shouldn’t have to research extensively what goes into our food. It should be natural to trust our food supply. Should.

  2. LaetOliveira said...

    Re SF sludge: You made me remember Tom Lehrer’s "Pollution". One verse says: "Pollution, pollution,They got smog and sewage and mud. Turn on your tap and get hot and cold running crud." – Maybe they’ll say their sludge is also rich in minerals…

  3. Anonymous said...

    I hope we learn before we’re all dead. Stop the chemicals. Stop using plastics. Become conscious consumers. Vote with your dollars. Grow your own food as much as possible.

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