Last week, as part of our obligations under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2015, we conducted our annual  “Mock Recall”.  That involves tracing a single product shipped on a single day and finding out how much the buyer still has on hand as well as how much has already been sold.  For many of our crops, it’s a simple task — over half of what we grow ends up in your CSA boxes.
Contrast that with the current recall by Thompson International of Bakersfield of onions grown in numerous locations and distributed to supermarkets and food processors in dozens of states in the U.S. and Canada.  The onions have been identified as the source of a Salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people nationwide.  Almost every day, the list of products made with the onions grows.
With large distributors like Thompson, conducting an effective recall of a product is a daunting task.  There so many layers to peel back in order to trace the product down through the distribution chain.  And like many fresh produce items, individual onions are commonly sold with no label to identify their origin.  For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration is telling consumers that if they don’t know where their onions came from, they should simply throw them away.  Over the last few weeks, it’s likely that many tens of thousands of pounds of onions from other farmers and distributors have been thrown away in addition to the ones implicated in the outbreak.
As a Terra Firma subscriber, you can be confident in knowing that your onions came from Winters, not Bakersfield, and were grown by us.  Please don’t throw them away.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first outbreak of food poisoning connected to dry bulb onions, at least on a scale big enough to make national news.  Onion growers actually lobbied for exclusion from FSMA, arguing that their product posed little risk due to their peels and the fact that they are usually cooked.
But onions do not grow under the soil like potatoes or carrots, and are thus exposed to birds (the most common vector for salmonella) and rodents while they are growing.  They are also commonly stored after harvest in large warehouses where birds or rodents also might gain access.  And while cooking generally kills pathogens, onions are also used raw in many dishes.  As with other products, contamination on the inedible peel can be transferred to the edible portion during preparation.
As an onion producer, Terra Firma is a tiny, yet we grow around 100,000 lbs. of onions each year.  Thompson International, as a larger producer, likely grows thousands of tons.  With 3-4 onions per pound, that translates to tens of millions of onions.  Even if you assume ten times as many people got sick as were reported, that is still less than one bad onion in a thousand.
It’s highly likely that for hundreds of years, individuals or small groups have gotten sick from eating individual contaminated onions.  The likelihood of an “outbreak” of illness increased only when the scale of distribution expanded to the point where a million onions came from a single source.
Every year, more pathogen-related cases of food-borne illness are identified and traced.  This is entirely a result of better technology for reporting and detecting them, not of more people becoming ill.  Thus it has become easier to identify the food causing behind each illness and remove it from circulation.  This may serve to prevent more people from consuming the contaminated products.  But in the case of products like onions, it will also lead to the massive waste of perfectly good food.
Better traceability will also have other unintended consequences.  Right now, individual farms bear the brunt when their products — grown outside in an uncontrolled environment — are contaminated by naturally-occurring pathogens.  This issue is front of mind for me as I was recently informed that Terra Firma’s long-time insurance company — along with many others — have decided they will no longer provide liability insurance to fresh vegetable growers.  Meanwhile, “recall insurance”, which helps cover the cost of a recall, is virtually impossible to afford.  Most farms that experience a food safety outbreak declare bankruptcy due to combined losses from lawsuits and recalls.  Some farmers have gone to jail.
In a truly just society, I feel that farms would not be held criminally or financially responsible for illness caused by naturally occurring organisms.  Unfortunately, our legal system seems to moving the other way, towards the idea that businesses must somehow protect both consumers and employees from unseen pathogens.  California recently made it clear that it will allow employers to be held liable for Covid 19 infections of their employees.
It’s terrible when people get sick from eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and a tragedy when any of those people die.  But fresh produce grown in the U.S. is arguably among the safest in the world.  Unfortunately, unless legal protections are enacted for farms, more and more of our fresh produce will be grown abroad in countries where our liability laws have no power to bankrupt farmers.  And that won’t make the food any safer to eat.