One of Monty Python’s most imitated sketches was "The Four Yorkshiremen."  Even if you’ve never seen it, it will be instantly recognizable to you.  It’s the one where four men sit around talking about how tough they had it as kids, compared to how kids have it today.  One starts by complaining about how small his house was, and another exclaims, "You had a house?"  Eventually, the last one claims to have been roused from bed half an hour before he went  to bed, worked 27 hours a day and paid for the privilege and then was murdered every night when he got home. 

I was thinking about this sketch as I was contemplating how different from the last food recall about which I blogged, involving tuna in New England, was from the painfully slow recalls involving the salmonella finding that has led Plainview Milk Products Cooperative to recall the last two years of its products.  As you might recall, the last recall involved fresh tuna steaks sold to three New England supermarket chains over four days before the problems were identified.  By this time, most of the food subject to the recall had probably been consumed and the recall required only publicity in a limited area for those who might have frozen the steaks rather than eaten them fresh.  Without denying the difficulties that North Coast Sea-Foods might have encountered in that recall, or the suffering of anyone who got scombroid poisoning, as a recall goes, they, in the words of Monty Python, had it easy.

The Plainview Milk Products Cooperative and everyone who bought from them, on the other hand, have it anything but easy, and the fact that almost every day new products are added to the recalled list demonstrates this. 

It all started with a package of powdered milk shake mix.  A USDA test showed there was salmonella in the powder.  Plainview was the supplier of a main ingredient in the powder.  Although tests of its products have uncovered no salmonella, there was salmonella found on some equipment in Plainview’s plant.  This triggered the recall.  No persons have been found who have been made ill by any of Plainview’s products.

Plainview does not sell products to consumers.  However, as the recall has unfolded, the number and scope of products that are sold to consumers that incorporate Plainview’s products has been shown to be huge.  Included are:

  • Instant non-fat dry milk
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Instant gravy
  • Popcorn
  • Instant cocoa
  • Sports drinks
  • Instant milk shakes

Products with familiar names like Malt-O-Meal and Land O’Lakes are covered, as are numerous private label products from companies like Meijer, Kroger, Stop and Shop and Piggly Wiggly

Because the products are the kind that are shelf-stable, and the recall covers two full years, even after all the recalled foods have been identified, getting consumers to search pantries for them will be difficult.  Indeed, a lot of these products were incorporated into emergency kits, the kinds of things you don’t open until needed. 

Another place where the powder can be found is in Meals-Ready-to-Eat, the famed MREs of the miltary.  In other words, U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are having to toss out their vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and stawberry-banana milkshakes, according to Stars and Stripes.  MREs are also used by FEMA and by campers

As Ken noted recently, the two highest priorities on the Obama Administration’s list for the FDA are Salmonella and a national traceback and response system.  What the Plainview situation indicates is that, to be effective, the tracing system may need to go in both directions.  It didn’t take the FDA long to find that Plainview’s products were incorporated into the milk shake mix, but it is taking a very long time to find all the products into which the same set of ingredients–including  nonfat dry milk, fruit stabilizers, whey protein, and gum products–have also been incorporated.   

The implications of such a system, however, are huge.  Here are just a few: 

  • There is an identity between food safety information and confidential commercial information in terms of the relations between suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers.  How will this be kept confidential?  Who will be trusted to keep it confidential?
  • Who pays for the system, and who controls its expenses? 
  • What is the end point on the origination side?  Does every farmer have to keep track of all the inputs into its produce? 
  • Manufacturers may use many sources of fungible goods; will they be required to trace these?  Who pays the capital cost of changing from one big hopper to four small ones?

Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning the point made by Kimberly Lord Stewart, editorial director of Functional Ingredients Newsletter.  As Ms. Stewart points out, there is no proof that the salmonella found in the milkshake powder came from the Plainview ingredients, and there are nine other ingredients in the powder made by others. 

As Ms. Stewart says,

The Plainview situation has hints of the salsa recall, which initially implicated tomato growers, then salsa makers, only to find out the source of contamination was jalapeños. Traceability is a complicated and looming issue for processed foods. Looking for a needle in a haystack is easy compared to tracking down 9 lesser ingredients in DairyShake blends or multiple ingredients in salsa.

 Or, as the late Graham Chapman would say, "Luxury."