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Earlier this year, more than 60,000 cantaloupes suspected of causing a salmonella outbreak in 10 states (including Maryland) were recalled by public health officials. The recall decision was the culmination of a complex scientific mystery. And it set off a legal battle that may affect all future food recalls. Kojo explores the story with two student-journalists who traced the cantaloupes’ path from an American grocery store back to the Guatemalan farm where they were grown.
- Brandon Quester Reporter, Cronkite News Service, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University
- Tarryn Mento Reporter, Cronkite News Service, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the "Lost Memory of Skin." Author Russell Banks discusses his newest novel. But first, the contentious science and politics of food recalls, tracing tainted food backward from fork to field.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt usually begins with a mystery illness. Reports stream in from different parts of the country, all pointing to the same culprit, food born bacteria like listeria or e-coli. Once public health officials figure out they have an outbreak on their hands, the sleuthing begins. This spring, 20 people in 10 states, including Maryland, came down with a rare form of salmonella.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOfficials pinpointed cantaloupe, grown on a small Guatemalan farm as the source and issued a recall. That small farm was operated by Del Monte, a very big company. And when it decided to challenge the recall in court, it didn't just challenge the findings of the FDA, it challenged the science and the investigations behind all food born recalls.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to have a conversation about this is Tarryn Mento and Brandon Quester. They are both reporters with the Cronkite News Service at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Tarryn Mento, thank you for joining us.
MS. TARRYN MENTOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBrandon Quester, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRANDON QUESTERThank you, good morning, Kojo.
NNAMDIBrandon and Tarryn join us from the studios of KTAR in Phoenix, Ariz. As stories of product recalls go, most of the story is unremarkably -- unremarkable. Only about 20 percent or 20 people came down ill. And only about 60,000 pieces of produce were recalled. But what makes this story unique, what makes it troubling is that, to many food safety advocates, is how the company Del Monte Fruit reacted after the recall.
NNAMDIIt pursued legal action, challenging the science behind recalls and went directly after the people who conducted the research. But, Brandon, let me start with you. Tell us about what happened in spring of this year? What was first noticed?
QUESTERSure, well, early on in -- around February, there was a rare strain of salmonella called salmonella panama. And it started showing up, first, in Oregon. And this rare strain was reported to local state health departments. And what happened beyond that point is it quickly became noticed within other states throughout the country that this rare strain had come up and was causing people to fall ill. Through state reporting practices, a trend developed where the state epidemiologist noticed that this was a food borne illness outbreak.
NNAMDITarryn, in the ideal world, people would get sick, we could find exactly what they ate, test it and figure out where it came from. But in most incidents, there is no smoking gun piece of evidence. So scientists and epidemiologists are forced to infer what the culprit is and where it came from. Walk us through how public health officials go about answering these questions.
MENTOWell, I mean, unfortunately, there's a lot of delay so what the first thing, I think, they do, that we found, is these questionnaires and these interviews with the victims. And basically they're asking the victims to recall, over maybe a month's time, of what they've eaten and where they've shopped. And, you know, what restaurants they've dined in.
MENTOSo they do these interviews and gather all the information and look at reoccurring culprits, I guess you could say, across the board with all the victims. And they do have some that are normally culprits in these kind of outbreaks but through this specific process, cantaloupe become actually -- continued to come up.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about the science of food recalls. If you have questions or comments about how food recalls work and food recall science, call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, e-mail to email@example.com or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDITarryn Mento, continue with the story for me, please. This August, Del Monte filed a lawsuit in federal court in Maryland challenging the recall and also naming the government scientist who investigated the outbreak. The suit has since been settled but it never the less raised a lot of concerns within the field, why is that?
MENTOWell, they were a little bit, you know -- we'd spoke to their state epidemiologist and food safety advocates that were worried this would have somewhat of a chilling effect on the process of alerting consumers that there is, you know, cause for concern over specific product. Because they had, you know, pursued litigation against, you know, calling out one specific person in general.
MENTOCertain people were worried that this might cause some sort of hesitation for a state epidemiologist to do their job. However we spoke to state epidemiologist that said, you know, they're always going to, you know, be -- their greatest concern is going to be the public. So they weren't going to worry about this. But there were other people that did fear it would have some sort of effect like that.
NNAMDIWell, tell us a little bit more about the process and how you followed the story and how it lead to Guatemala?
QUESTERSure. I can kind of jump in here.
NNAMDISure, go ahead, Brandon.
QUESTERThis was -- sure. This was really a fascinating story, that early on, Tarryn and I both had researched growing food imports in the United States and there was this exponential growth in amounts of food from foreign nations, arriving in the United States. And when we first saw this outbreak, it touched on a multitude of levels that we found interesting within the food safety industry.
QUESTEROne of those was the growing imports from across the world. And the challenge that presents to federal regulators, here in the United States, in inspecting and regulating that food. The other was growing produce as part of that import influx. And -- so when we saw this case, we said, you know, this is something that we should look into. And so we started to kind of dig into it.
QUESTERAnd eventually, once we found out that the cantaloupe outbreak was linked back to a farm in Asuncion Mita, Guatemala, we decided that it would be within our interested to try and visit the farm and see what, you know, what the farm looked like and how the outbreak occurred.
NNAMDISo you and Tarryn actually traveled down to Guatemala to look at the farm. What did you find?
QUESTERWe did. We traveled down to Guatemala City and started there with talking with the Minister of Agriculture, which is Guatemala's equivalent of a federal food safety agency. And we decided to try and speak with Del Monte Fresh Produce which owns the farm. And through many calls, many e-mails, we were unable to actually gain access into the farm itself. So being, you know, investigative reporters, we decided to head down there anyway.
QUESTERSo we drove, you know, about four hours from Guatemala City to this, kind of, farm that's like nestled in this fertile valley, about 15 miles from the El Salvador border. And when we got there, we were not granted access to the farm, but we were able to, you know, travel on some of the roads surrounding the farm within that area.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Brandon Quester and Tarryn Mento. They are both reporters with the Cronkite News Service at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. They join us from the studios of KTAR in Phoenix, Ariz., to talk about the science of food recalls, in general. And the story that the-y worked on in particular. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Has a food recall changed the way you shop or what you eat?
NNAMDIWhat kind of confidence do you have in the food safety system, 800-433-8850? We should note that this is not the same case as the recent outbreaks involving cantaloupe over the last month. There've been scares involving listeria bacteria detected in cantaloupes from Colorado. Brandon, on the surface, we might expect the safety standards in a place like Guatemala where a much lower than here. But that might not be the case. How would you compare -- either you Brandon or you Tarryn, how would you compare what you've seen of food safety you researched here and in Guatemala?
QUESTERSure. Well, you know, it's really interested because that was one of the issues we really wanted to explore in addition to visiting the farm in Guatemala was, you know, what kind of standards must a foreign company, that is exporting to the United States, have? And they have a thing of equivalency.
QUESTERAnd essentially what that is, is the FDA, who regulates food imports into the U.S., as far as produce and food under their purview, they look at other facilities that export to the U.S. and either through paper documents or actual inspections, which we found are actually fairly rare throughout the world, you know that sets an equivalent standard of sanitary operating practices, safe handling practices, packaging, farming, etcetera.
QUESTERSo although, you know, some of these countries that do export food to the U.S. may, you know, people may assume that they might not have a safe practice of producing food. It is up to the FDA to establish them as an equivalent counterpart to U.S. agencies here.
NNAMDIAnd was that, in fact, established in the case of Guatemala?
QUESTERI'll let Tarryn answer that one.
MENTOWell, you know, when we were down speaking the ministry of agriculture representatives -- well, first of all, let me just say that the FDA expects any facility that is importing to the U.S. to, kind of, be with their standards as well. There is that idea of equivalency but especially a company that's, you know, operated by an American company, they should be in agreement with the FDA regulations and suggestions.
MENTOWhen we were down -- and this is also in our story, when we were down in Guatemala, the ministry of agriculture said that they had found that the farm from where these cantaloupes came, was actually not completely complying with some of their regulations in their country. However that's not necessarily a factor when the FDA is inspecting that at the border and checking it in.
MENTOWe, you know, and Del Monte just responded that that was, you know, we weren't able to get an accurate response from Del Monte, it's in our story that they said that that's it -- you know, it's not necessarily true. However the ministry of agriculture just, you know, did say that there were some elements that they were missing. But Del Monte, at the same time, did have their own food safety standards that they implemented that a third party audit shows that they were meeting.
QUESTERAnd, you know, another interesting element of this is in 2010, the FDA actually came to Guatemala to inspect one of these three indirect subsidiaries of Fresh Del Monte or Del Monte Fresh Produce. And they didn't, in fact, inspect the actual Asuncion Mita facility which was implicated with this outbreak, but they did one of their sister facilities down there. And through that inspection report, they found that the facility wasn't in compliance with U.S. laws and regulations.
QUESTERAnd then again, following the outbreak, Del Monte hired a third party auditor to inspect the actual Asuncion Mita facility, months after, you know, the recall had occurred and the FDA had imposed a ban on cantaloupe from that facility. And there were only, I believe, three discrepancies with that facility, nothing of significant import according to our reporting with sanitation on that facility.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is George in Bethesda, Md. George, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GEORGEYes, Kojo, this just smacks of corporatism, once again. Why does Del Monte to have the right to go after individuals in the FDA instead of perhaps talking to some higher level executives in the FDA? But who has the right to go after Del Monte? You know, individuals that might've been responsible for the mismanagement of this Guatemalan farm that didn't, perhaps, keep up to the standards? We can't even inspect it to see exactly what happened in a timely fashion? I mean, this country really needs to wake up. That's all. It's a comment more than a question.
NNAMDIWell, Brandon and Tarryn, you can talk about the implications of Del Monte's legal action challenging the science behind recalls. And they are challenged directly to the people who conducted the research. How, in the scientific community, is that being perceived?
QUESTERSure, I can answer that one. You know, it's troubling to a lot of the epidemiologists and food safety experts that we've spoken to. You know, for the -- Del Monte fresh produce pursuing litigation against not only the FDA but the Oregon State Health Department and its senior epidemiologists is unprecedented.
QUESTERAnd most of the people that we have spoken to said this, as Tarryn mentioned early, could have a dramatic chilling effect on the industry itself. And in affect it questions epidemiology as a tool to trace and identify food borne illness outbreaks, which is a science-based analysis through questionnaires, through scientific evidence, through testing, etcetera that develops a probability that in fact a food borne illness outbreak is the result of, you know, X fruit or A fruit or vegetable, what have you.
NNAMDIAll by establishing a strong correlation. Yes, Tarryn.
MENTOI just wanted to add that the majority of people with whom we spoke that were directly involved with this investigation referred to it as a great success in terms of that they were able -- they were very, very sure that the Asuncion Mita cantaloupe were the root of this problem. And then when we found out about the litigation and the notice to file suit against the Oregon senior epidemiologist, we spoke to other epidemiologists. Like I just said, they were baffled by this. And they just, you know, were completely shocked and didn't really see the need for it just because the evidence was so strong.
NNAMDIGeorge, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Quacy (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md. Quacy, your turn.
QUACYYes, hello. I actually have a question in regards to traceability. I wanted to know that if in your research if they've come across companies that currently provide traceability -- food tracing services where the consumer is provided with information about exactly where the foods they purchase are coming from. 'Cause nine times out of ten, you know, people buy food and aside from the general idea of where it may have come from, they have no idea exactly how it got (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIQuacy, I'm glad you brought that up because retailers and supermarkets keep all kinds of information about their customers these days. When you scan your membership card at a market, you may be getting a better deal on your vegetables, but they're getting all kinds of insights about you and what they'll try to use to get you to spend more money. But it turns out, apparently, the paper trail is actually a key piece of evidence when it comes to pinpointing causes of outbreaks. Tarryn, tell Quacy and our audience about the role Costco played in this story.
MENTOYes. Actually Costco was one of the contributors that made this -- the tracing of this outbreak such a great success. Was that, you know, after they did these interviews people said, I'm a Costco shopper. These are the things I bought. You know, they went back to Costco with the membership number of the victim and Costco was able to supply them with their purchase history.
MENTOAnd they were able to find a consistent product number that kept coming up, and then going back to Costco again with that they asked for their shipping records. And Costco was able to show to them, you know, who that product number was specifically coming from. And then they were able, you know, to contact and reach out to Del Monte.
MENTOJust to add a little bit to that, there are some initiatives out there to kind of streamline this process. Costco is heralded somewhat as a gold standard, but there are -- I think the Produce Marketing Association does have something called the produce traceability initiative, which I'm speaking a little bit outside my area of expertise. It was actually one of my colleagues that worked on that story. But there are initiatives out there to try and get some sort of standard process that every produce retailer and provider can adhere to.
NNAMDIQuacy, thank you very much for your call. You are both journalism students, Brandon and Tarryn, at Arizona State University, and fellows at a project called News21. But your article ran in the Washington Post. How did you end up picking up on this story?
QUESTERYou know, we picked up on this story -- News21 is a national project where top -- it's consisted of 12 universities throughout the United States. And the national project which looked into food safety this year started with a seminar class led by Leonard Downie, Junior who's the former executive editor of the Washington Post and is now a professor at Arizona State University's Cronkite School.
QUESTERAnd so for the spring semester we spent the entire semester researching food safety issues throughout the United States. And it was through this research I focused on food imports. And Tarryn focused more initially on produce, where we found this subject. And that's kinda what got the ball rolling for the later research of this project.
NNAMDITarryn, how were food inspections done before they used these epidemiological approaches?
MENTOAre you referring to in terms of the FDA inspecting facilities, in terms of third party audits or would you like me to answer on those...
NNAMDINo, no. In terms of figuring out the origin of these kinds of outbreaks?
MENTOWell, I mean, basically, like I mentioned earlier, what they do is they go back and they look at the history of the -- and of a victim's, you know, what they've been eating. And they kind of trace it back and they compare their notes of -- I guess, of all the victims and try to find the, you know, things that keep reappearing that have, you know, possibly led these people to be sick. There's also certain vessels that are -- have been traditionally causing certain food-borne illnesses.
NNAMDIAnd I guess that has a lot to do with the fact that they can't, I guess, inspect the food itself. They can't test the food itself 'cause it's gone by then.
MENTOWell, absolutely. You know, normally by the time, just because of the times and delays for sicknesses to appear and for actually reporting to get to the epidemiologist, the product in question has, you know, possibly been thrown away or completely consumed. And, you know, it's gone beyond its shelf life. So that's the issue, especially with highly perishable product. That's the barrier they run into and where all this background detective work really comes in as a huge asset.
NNAMDIAnd finally here's Meg in Silver Spring, Md. Meg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MEGYes. How do the bacteria get on or in the fruit or vegetables? Is it something that happens in the fields? I'm just curious about where it comes from.
NNAMDICare to answer that, Tarryn or Brandon?
QUESTERSure. You know, that's one of the big issues that we found we can speak to cantaloupe specifically probably with this question is that the easy answer to that is that it can happen anywhere. It can happen at any point along the supply chain from when that piece of fruit is grown -- put in the dirt to when it reaches your plate. There's really countless areas where that can become contaminated.
QUESTERBut most frequently with cantaloupe it's grown in the open air out in a field. And a lot of animal intrusion can cause different pathogen contaminations. Water sources can provide those. And with cantaloupe specifically it's a unique fruit in the sense that it has a netted rind, which is -- pathogens can really adhere and hide within that netted rind. And it's difficult at times to wash off. And if that pathogen makes its way onto a U.S. store shelf or onto your -- into your home kitchen, even if you scrub it you might not get it all away.
QUESTERAnd then the inside of a cantaloupe is actually also quite unique because of pH levels. And the nutrient rich core of the fruit itself is very conducive to bacterial growth.
NNAMDIAnd, Meg, you should know that you can find a link to the article that Tarryn Mento and Brandon Quester wrote at our website kojoshow.org. Meg, thank you very much for your call. Tarryn Mento and Brandon Quester are reporters for the Cronkite News Service at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Tarryn Mento, thank you for joining us.
MENTOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBrandon Quester, thank you for joining us.
QUESTERThank you so much. We appreciate your time.
NNAMDILater this month, we'll be talking to local officials and agriculture extension specialists who are working abroad to help raise the standards of farming in developing countries that export to the U.S. Right now, we're going to take a short break. When we come back, author Russell Banks discusses his newest novel the "Lost Memory of Skin." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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