The Importance of Knowing Your Farmer

You’ve probably read about the massive fresh vegetable recall that seems to be growing faster than okra on a sunny day. If you haven’t read about it you probably should, the list of stores who sold the recalled vegetable is short: Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Safeway, Albertson’s, Pak’N Save, Vons, Target and H-E-B. In addition to those stores, the recall includes restaurant service provider Sysco Natural. The recall itself comes from Mann Packing – a company I had never heard of – and covers both the United States and Canada. It is for the deadly bacteria Listeria. The recall notice reads, in part: “Mann Packing is issuing this recall in response to a single positive result found on one of our products during random sampling by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Mann Packing is issuing this recall out of an abundance of caution. To date, public health officials have not reported any illnesses associated with these products.” I’m not writing this to scare anyone.

We talk a lot about how important it is to know your farmer. To know who grows the food you eat and how they go about doing it. Obviously that isn’t always possible, I know I have dubious looking packets of spices in my pantry that I purchased from Amazon when I couldn’t find what I wanted somewhere locally. Some are identified only by a sticker added by the seller at some stage to comply with FDA or USDA labeling laws. I justify my purchase and trust in the seller in various ways – I needed it, I couldn’t find it anywhere else, I only use a teaspoonful at a time, how bad could it be? I do exactly the same thing when I crave a vegetable that isn’t in season and as I write this I realise I have never questioned exactly where Glut sources my dried beans. I should probably stop looking for examples now. The point here is that it is better to know than not know, but there is a bigger picture too.

I had never heard of Mann Packing before this recall, so I started looking. The first things I saw were beautifully packaged fresh vegetables. Bloomberg tells me that Mann Packing Co., Inc. is based in Salinas, California, was formerly known as H. W. Mann, and was founded in 1939. Cue Grapes of Wrath flashbacks. The company offers “fresh-cut and commodity vegetables for retail, wholesale, and foodservice marketplaces. It provides broccoli and carrots, cauliflower, butternut squash, gourmet snow peas, lo mein stir fries, salads, romaine hearts, snacks, sweet potato cubes, sweet potato fries, meat and cheese platters, vegetable medleys, and vegetable platters.” Over at The Produce News I learned a lot about the company and the history of broccoli in the US.

Having learned who Mann Packing was I looked up the recall – it made sense in my mind to find out who and then what. The FDA has a page for product recalls. The default order is by date and there seems to be no way to sort for importance or impact. The first recall on the list was Pacific Coast Fruit Company, bagged processed salads, reason: Listeria monocytogenes, Mann2017. The second recall was Just Cut, broccoli florets, reason: Listeria monocytogenes, Mann2017.  In fact of the first ten recalls shown, seven were for “Listeria monocytogenes, Mann2017” with the other three being for undeclared milk, egg or both. I filtered the results for “Listeria monocytogenes, Mann2017” and came up with ten results, the earliest being Mann Packing on October 19th. There were two more recalls on October 20th, four more on October 21st, and three more on October 23rd.

At this point I decided to write this post, all of the above had been for my own curiosity. The recalls, particularly the number and way in which they mushroomed, says a lot to me about our food distribution chain. It seems clear to me that Mann Packing, while listing fully the items sold under their own and other select labels, did not include the products labeled and sold by H-E-B, Meijer, Pacific Coast Fruit Company, and others. Obviously each of these later recalls were caused by products from Mann Packing. Presumably they were products that, had they been labeled by Mann Packing, would have been included in the initial recall. But they weren’t. That’s where my mind starts wandering. Surely Mann Packing knows exactly who they sell to and in what quantities, batches, upc codes etc. Clearly the sellers know exactly who provided the ingredients in their final products. So what happens in the middle? Honestly I’m not sure and that’s the part I worry about. Also, because Mann Packing didn’t issue the recall for the products of the other companies, is it possible there are other products out there that would have been recalled, should have been recalled, but haven’t been recalled simply because the company behind them is less cautious than Mann packing, CP Fresh, King Soopers and others? I’m not saying there are other products out there, but I have no way of knowing. What I do know is I feel safer sticking to only vegetables we grow ourselves; at least until this recall slips from my mind.

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