by Marion Nestle
Oct 27 2007

ConAgra’s Peanut Butter Recall: the story

CIO, the magazine for corporate Chief Information Officers, has an interesting report on this year’s recall of Peter Pan peanut butter. It’s written from the standpoint of company data managers, the folks responsible for setting up tracking systems for product recalls. Fine, but what about food safety systems?

  • It is amazing to me that people are still placing their faith in common mass-market foods that can result in this kind of protracted recall nightmare, yet when it is suggested that they make some changes to their food shopping habits to seek out local, seasonal sources of fresh food, with shorter distribution and production trails, which dramatically reduces risk of food poisoning and costly, ineffective recalls, they think it is too hard and too much trouble (or too expensive). That logic escapes me. More regulation will not fix this broken system of industrial food production and distribution.

    Fresh produce from local CSAs (community supported agriculture farm share programs) or farmers markets is one of the easiest ways to reduce the risk and make traceability easier and faster.

    Another is to buy dairy products that are from one local dairy farm, not a huge co-mingled dairy conglomerate, produced and shipped long distances. Meat and eggs are also items that can usually be procured locally from direct sources or shorter production distances.

    It isn’t as hard to do this as people might think, but it does take a bit of asking around to find the alternatives to multinational conglomerate products. It might not happen overnight, but with growing consumer interest, more local sources will meet the demand and be eaiser to find.

    And the benefits are many. Less worry and risk of illness. If problems do occur, they are easier and faster to trace. The local economy benefits, because resources stay locally, building the local economy rather than draining it. The local farming community is strengthened, rather than weakened. While individual products sometimes cost more than mass-market items (though they can also be significantly less, too), in the long run there can be significant savings, as less time in the grocery store means less impulsive spending and time saved. And buying items like meat in bulk for the freezer can be expecially economical, even with the cost of purchasing and maintaining a freezer.

  • Anna said, “It is amazing to me that people are still placing their faith in common mass-market foods”

    Well, most people remain afraid to buy anything that’s not a recognized brand name. (And, just think how weird it is to go into Whole Foods for the first time – what are all of these brands you’ve never heard of?) I don’t think even 1% of Americans yet associate “big brands” with “bad, unhealthy” food.

  • Jack, you’re right, of course. But perhaps people *should* associate “big brand” foods with “bad, unhealthful” food. The PR spinners are trying hard not to let that happen, of course. And many of the food products in Whole Foods and similar stores aren’t much better than “big brands”; they’re still over processed organic junk food with industrial roots and travel histories. Some are even owned by “big brands”.

    But that fear that so many feel today is not constructive; it just produces more of the same bad results. A more constructive way to direct that fear is to move outside the industrial system. That breeds less fear and more confidence in the food we consume. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it isn’t as difficult as people imagine.

  • Fentry

    There is a lot of irrational prejudice involved in branding.

    Ironically, branding is used to create an observable difference in products people don’t know about. If one uses a CSA, one knows where the product comes from and so a brand is unnecessary.

    Most people I talk to think it should be illegal to produce and sell food locally. They worry about food contamination. They don’t trust a small business to make jam or sell eggs or meat, but they do trust a brand–from large companies selling foods laced with low doses of poisons (in my opinion) and where contamination does occur with some predictable frequency, resulting in thousands or millions of contamination cases.

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