After a year-long investigation, agents from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration joined state and local authorities yesterday to bust owners of a small Venice, Calif., health food market on charges of selling raw milk.
We read these two paragraphs in the early Los Angeles Times story about the bust, and they got under our skin like a burrowing parasite:
"The arrests followed a one-year investigation during which undercover agents purchased unpasteurized dairy products from Healthy Family Farms stands in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said Matthew Krasnowski, a district attorney spokesman. The products included unpasteurized goat milk, cheese and yogurt.
The arrests came the same week that federal and state health officials warned the public about a food-borne illness outbreak tied to ground turkey contaminated with antibiotic-resistant salmonella, an outbreak in which one Californian has died and 76 others have fallen ill so far."
Why does that piss us off?
Because the food producer that sickened the public with salmonella-contaminated meat wasn't some group of old hippies with a small herd of cows: It was Cargill Meat Solutions, the largest "processor" of turkeys and the second-largest "processor" of beef in the country.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, federal officials spotted a salmonella outbreak in March. At least 76 people have been sickened, and one in California died. Federal officials traced the bacteria back to Cargill.
And then what happened? Did they do as they did in Venice with the raw milk producers -- who are not accused of sickening anyone -- charge into the plant with guns drawn and make arrests?
No. The Christian Science Monitor reports,
When the USDA went ahead and contacted Cargill last week, it met with the company's legal representatives to inform them of their findings. A second meeting took place Wednesday with Cargill's corporate management. That resulted in the voluntary recall later in the day, Goldman says.
That "voluntary recall" is of 36 million pounds of ground turkey. And you know what? It's only the third-largest recall in the country's history.
So how come the feds have a year to spend on an undercover investigation of a tiny shop selling raw milk to people who sign a paper acknowledging the risk in what they're buying, but they don't have any agents to spare as soon as a salmonella outbreak is detected to send to one of the nation's largest meat processors?
We're not saying the feds, or local authorities, should slack off on their duties of upholding the safety of our food chain. It saddens us when the San Francisco Health Department shuts down little guys who make soup in their own kitchens and sell it on the street. But we understand why that happens.
What we want is for the feds to get their priorities straight. The real risk isn't the little guys. If the feds had spared some of their agents from the raw-milk investigation to look into the salmonella outbreak, the country would be healthier. Would a visit to, say, the nation's five largest meat producers with some swabs and test tubes really be too much to ask?
Three Venice raw-milk purveyors are facing criminal charges today, including a clerk who is charged with three conspiracy counts. We'll set the over-under line for betting on arrests at Cargill at zero.