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Tracking down the biggest food recall of 2018 Date: 02/05/19

Sam Bloch

By Bara Vaida

The New Food Economy reporter Sam Bloch got started in journalism in high school by writing for his school paper. After some internships and time as a freelance contributor at LA Weekly, he decided to head to the School of Journalism at Columbia University. Through his girlfriend, who works at a restaurant, he learned about many of the hidden stories about the nation’s food system, so when a job opened up at the New Food Economy, he grabbed it. One his beats is food recalls, which led him to his recent story highlighting the biggest food recall in 2018. The story was about McCain Foods, a multi-billion-dollar foodservice corporation, based in Ontario, which manufactures frozen foods. The story, which no one else had reported, puts a spotlight on how much of the food system is vulnerable to contamination.

Q: How did this story come about?

A: This started as a year in review story. It was a, let’s look back at all the big recalls in 2018. The idea was to try to get all the federal data we could with food recalls. So, as I was going through food recall information on the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] website, I found 30-40 entries related to McCain. Most of the media had reported on recalls on packaged salads in October from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and other places, but there wasn’t much after October and there were many more recalls. I realized I was the only person to focus on reporting on the total damage of the [McCain recalls.]

 Q: What were some of your challenges with reporting this story?

A: What is tricky is that the FDA and USDA don’t report things in the same way. The FDA has oversight of around 80 percent of the food supply and the USDA regulates meat, eggs, poultry, which is a separate category from meat, and then catfish. Each agency collects data differently and releases data differently. The FDA releases enforcement reports and the USDA puts out press releases. The USDA has specific numbers of pounds that were recalled, while the FDA reports on a range of pounds of products that were recalled.

Q: How did that challenge impact the reporting?

A: The FDA is pretty good about posting, in its enforcement report, the weight and sizes of the items recalled, but provides a range of weights. So it might say that McCain recalled half-inch diced red peppers sold in “2 pound and 25 pound containers” under the brand name “Jon-Lin”, and that 15,280 cases were recalled. But the FDA doesn’t say how many containers were in each case. To figure out how many pounds of McCain products were recalled, I had to use the low-end figure in calculating the total recall. The recall could have been larger, but the report doesn’t make that clear. My sourcing is limited with that.

Q: So obviously you had to be comfortable with combing through reports and working with numbers too?

A: Yes. I definitely did some boring data entry and number crunching.

Q: What else was a challenge?

A: I called every company that had prepared food with recalled ingredients and, with one exception, none of them wanted to talk to me. I would have thought that these food manufacturers and commercial kitchens that had to toss out all those products, might want to explain how they got in the middle of this food recall. The perspective of, you didn’t poison the food, but you got sold poisoned ingredients, would have been a useful thing to have in my story. Also, I did this story during the government shut down and it was the holidays, so no one was around to talk to me.

Q: What was the reaction to your story? Did anyone die?

A: No updates on either [more recalls or there being deaths]. I got a few personal notes from other food advocates and McCain decided to close the [California] plant [where the ingredients recalled were made] a few days after my story ran.

Q: For a reporter who is new on the food safety beat, what do you recommend for resources?

A: Sign up for USDA food safety and inspection service notifications. I would recommend you start building sources with people who work in food safety to ask them what they are worried about. You can find those folks in a number of places. A lot of the universities in agriculture states will have food safety professors. Reach out to consumer advocates. They pay attention to recalls. USDA and FDA post online training manuals, which gives you a sense of how the government thinks about food safety. Also the FDA has a science advisory board and some of those folks are helpful when it comes to food safety. Also look for plaintiffs’ lawyers who have sued over the recalls.

Q: Why do you think we are having so many food recalls? That romaine lettuce recall in 2018 was remarkable for its breadth in that initially, the CDC said no romaine lettuce in the entire country was safe to eat.

A: The romaine lettuce recall was really big, and got a lot of people to pay attention [to food safety]. What sources are telling me is that the USDA and the FDA are getting better at detecting and tracing food borne illness. They are moving whole genome sequencing [for tracking], making it easier to put the pieces together. Some people have [also] suggested that consolidation of food production, is causing food borne illnesses to spread. If you are a company and own every part of the production chain, you will hold yourself to a lower standard than if you are, say, relying on someone else not to sell you a chicken with salmonella.

Sam Bloch is a staff writer at The New Food Economy, a nonprofit newsroom based in New York City, where he covers food policy, labor and technology. He has also written about arts and culture for publications including The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, and Artnet. An essay about the lack of shade in Los Angeles will be published by Places Journal this spring. Bloch is a graduate of Vassar College and the School of Journalism at Columbia University.