But it's still always better to know than not to know.
OK, so now we know the name of that Indiana farm that may have been responsible for the cantaloupes behind the salmonella outbreak that has so far has infected 178 people in 21 states, hospitalized 62 and killed two – Chamberlain Farms of Owensville. How does that really help us as consumers?
Certainly, it is always better to know than to not know, especially when our right to know includes a need to protect ourselves. The question is whether knowing the name of the farm will add to our level of self-defense.
Before it finally released the name of the farm this week, the Food and Drug Administration had defended its silence as an attempt to avoid “falsely or prematurely” naming someone. Suspected but innocent farmers, distributors and retailers could be put out of business.
The counter argument was that not revealing the name cast suspicion on all cantaloupe producers and distributors in the Hoosier state. One southern Indiana farmer was quoted as saying the wholesale market had suddenly dried up and farmers were losing thousands of dollars a day. Given that people in 21 states are affected, shouldn’t protection of public health trump protection of commerce?
That argument has now triumphed, and Chamberlain’s voluntary withdrawal of cantaloupes from distribution has become a formal FDA recall, which it is hoped will “boost awareness.”
What we might do or not do with that awareness is worth talking about. According to news accounts of the salmonella outbreak, “most cantaloupes” have a sticker “identifying where the fruit was grown.” Anyone who has regularly shopped for produce knows that claim is debatable, but suppose the sticker is always there? Are consumers supposed to carry around a list of all the foods currently implicated in illness outbreaks along with the places where they are produced so they can check the threat level every single thing they buy? How many people are actually going to do that?
The way it usually happens is much simpler: A large percentage of people are simply going to stop buying cantaloupes from anywhere until the current situation is thoroughly resolved or they let it slip from their conscious minds, whichever comes first.
“Let the buyer beware” is always good advice; both as consumers and citizens, we are obligated to learn as much as we can about everything we encounter. But sometimes we need help, and this one of those areas. Like it or not, for food safety we must depend on the good intentions and competence of others.