These Young Children Will Tell You, Don't Believe Everything You Read in Food Safety News
“The whole cantaloupes in the stores are now safe to eat,” Food Safety News reassured its readers on September 26, 2011. Its article included standard advice about following proper food handling procedures, and avoiding cantaloupes connected to an outbreak of listeria from cantaloupes in Colorado that was just concluding.
But the industry experts FSN spoke to were all reassuring. “Most definitely, cantaloupes are safe,” it quoted one California producer as saying.
Yet within a year, in July 2012, a four-year-old Michigan girl would “develop painful abdominal cramps” one evening, according to a court suit. “The next morning, she began to suffer from repeated bouts of severe diarrhea. The abdominal cramps had worsened overnight, and on July 18, (the girl) suffered dozens of bouts of diarrhea. She had been infected by Salmonella typhimurium as a result of consuming cantaloupe…”:
For days, the girl and her parents were back and forth to a hospital emergency room, as the fever, abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea continued. While the fever broke July 20, “the cramps and diarrhea persisted almost until the end of July.”
That same month, two other young Michigan sisters would suffer similar similar symptoms, and be similarly diagnosed, according to another court suit. One of the girls would spend four days in the hospital.
Cantaloupes obviously weren’t nearly as safe as FSN and its industry sources thought. Indeed, cantaloupes were a scourge on the land, in food safety terms.
In 2011 and 2012 alone, 308 people were sickened and 39 killed…..by tainted cantaloupe. It’s not known exactly how many were children, but you can be sure it is more than the three documented here.
Since 1990, there have been 1,428 cantaloupe illnesses, with the trend line seeming to head more sharply upward over the last few years.
The original reassurances about cantaloupes, as I said at the beginning of this article, came from Food Safety News. The information on cantaloupe illnesses and sickened little children? That came from the blog of food safety lawyer, Bill Marler, who owns Food Safety News.
I wouldn’t be so cynical as to suggest that Marler encouraged FSN to go easy on cantaloupe so as to possibly create new clients for his law practice, (though he has impugned the motives of raw dairy producers, saying recently “I certainly understand the desire of a farmer to sell a highly profitable product…”). In fact, I think he genuinely cares about people who get sick from bad food, and wants to do right by them, much as raw dairy producers care about the health and safety of their customers. And he tries to represent divergent views in FSN—he has even allowed several of my opinion pieces to be published.
Where he has gotten himself into trouble is in departing from the mission inferred in the title of his publication, which is supposed to be about food safety. If it was really about food safety, it would have warned readers in that 2011 article I led off with that any food, including cantaloupe, can make you sick at any time, no matter what the producers say. He also wouldn’t have labeled another food, raw milk, as inherently unsafe, in part because a farmer who produced some tainted batches of the stuff that made many people very sick said the problem wasn’t his fault, but rather the food’s fault.
But because the producers in the cantaloupe and raw milk cases fit into FSN’s distorted view of the world, they were turned into mouthpieces for ideology rather than food safety—an ideology that plays up to regulators, corporations, the medical community, and others.
Can you imagine an article in Food Safety News substituting raw milk for cantaloupe in that opening article? In other words, with raw milk producers insisting, following an outbreak attributed to raw milk, that all was well and all raw milk being produced was now safe?
Of course not. And the reason is that raw milk is deemed to be inherently unsafe, while cantaloupe is considered redeemable, subject to illnesses as a result of carelessness in harvesting or cleaning, but basically safe.
So you see entirely different kinds of media attention. Despite the fact that illnesses from cantaloupes are trending way up from a sizable earlier base (nearly 1,500 illnesses since 1990).
That FSN article I highlighted in the previous post about raw milk fit all the anti-raw-milk prejudices to a tee, with this topper: the offending farmer had seen “the errors of his ways.” It wasn’t his fault, it was raw milk’s fault. He screwed up, but FSN allowed him to blame the inherent danger of raw milk and thus come off as someone who made an entirely forgivable error because he was temporarily led astray by the forces of evil.
Once you blow your credibility, you blow a lot.