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Sold on food safety

Corporate self-interest and fear of lawsuits has some retailers taking on the role of consumer watchdogs.

August 19, 2008

If more than 1,400 people were sickened by a nationwide outbreak of salmonella, could a lawsuit be far behind? A Colorado man has sued Wal-Mart, claiming that he was sold a tainted jalapeno pepper even though the retailer leads its customers to believe that the food it sells is wholesome.

Lawsuits on the outbreak that started in the spring and dragged into summer will probably be rare. Although it's known that jalapenos contributed to the food poisoning, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't figured out whether tomatoes might have as well. The rare Salmonella Saintpaul bacterium implicated in the illness was never found on any tomatoes, though it was found on peppers. That leaves victims in the position of proving that they ate poison vegetables. The Colorado case is exceptional because the plaintiff's wife reportedly brought the pepper to health officials, who found the strain of salmonella on it.

Wal-Mart, of course, would have had no way of knowing whether its peppers were tainted, if the store was indeed the source, but that's not an excuse under strict product liability laws, which hold anyone who profits from the sale or production of an item responsible for it.

Considering how amorphous food production is under modern agribusiness practices -- with processors and distributors commingling and shipping produce from hundreds of farms, and the FDA unable so far to monitor this situation in a meaningful way -- retailers represent the consumer's best chance of being compensated for food poisoning. Because of that, they also might turn out to be the strongest force for safer agricultural methods.

Some big retailers already show signs of embracing such a role. Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Tesco, the parent company of the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain, contract with a private food regulator, GlobalG.A.P., that sets higher standards for their suppliers than those imposed by the federal government and carries out its own inspections. FDA inspections are notoriously rare; the agency visits fields perhaps once every 10 years. If the latest allegations against jalapeno peppers prove true, the private system is far from perfect, but it can be modified and strengthened more quickly than FDA or U.S. Department of Agriculture operations.

Whether this kind of involvement by retailers is forced by civil lawsuits or is the result of enlightened self-interest, it's a welcome development. Retailers have both the clout to compel high standards and better tracking in agriculture and a direct reason to worry about consumers' concerns.

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