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Efficiencies of Scale


“Nationwide panic from a 50-acre field.”
This was a recent headline on a blog named The Ethicurean that I regularly read and, although hyperbolic (I’m not sure “panic,” is the most accurate term), the headline nevertheless makes its point. What isn’t hyperbole is that a single 50-acre field resulted in deaths and illnesses in 26 states.
Think about that for a moment while you look at this map of validated outbreaks of e-coli related illnesses spread by the spinach grown on the field in question.
Now imagine 50 acres — an area not quite a mile in circumference. An area most of us could walk all the way around in about an hour — I know that because I grew up on a 43-acre farm. It is a tiny piece of land (unless you’re digging post holes) and yet it affected people in over 50 percent of the American landscape. How does this happen?
I read the just-published, 50-page report produced by the California Food Emergency Response Team under the aegis of the California Department of Health Services and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Assuming the report is accurate, and I have no reason to think otherwise, it appears that the packer has good to excellent procedures in place for sanitation and for identifying and correcting most potential problems in the greens it processes.
Ah! Must be the grower’s fault.
Well, no. Cattle were fenced out, although wild animals (including pigs) had access, but this isn’t generally a problem. After all, most crops are exposed to wild animals unless they’re grown in a green house. And it turns out the cattle in the immediate area were actually feeding on pasture, not confined to the cesspools called feedlots (a problem I suspected was the root cause when I wrote The GAPs Gap). The grower was seeking “organic” certification and so chicken manure was used for fertilizer instead of petroleum-based products, but it was properly sterilized.
In short, everyone from the packager down through the grower, to the company producing the grower’s fertilizer, appears to have done as good a job as one could hope for when humans are involved. There are some elements that need to be addressed. For instance, the packager only samples for bacterial contamination once a month, and daily would have been better. But the reality is you can’t sample every leaf.

Frankly, I’m damned impressed with all the parties involved — including the government. So what went wrong? The efficiencies of scale.
Rather than each farmer cleaning, packing and distributing his own produce, a central packaging/distribution facility collects produce from many farmers and performs those tasks. This enables the farmer to concentrate on farming and the distributor on packaging and distribution. The arrangement is more efficient because the costs of processing are centralized at the distributor and then spread out over many more customers than any single farmer can reach. Specialization itself also reduces costs by improving efficiency.
The drawback is that contamination from one fifty-acre field affected produce from hundreds and hundreds of acres. Instead of just a few of that farm’s customer being affected, hundreds of customers were affected.
Perhaps inevitably there’s renewed talk of irradiating produce. I don’t have a problem with irradiation: There’s no evidence that it’s harmful in any way. And as long as consumers insist on cheap produce, out of season, there’s really no way around the issue of factory farming. And I’m not setting myself up as holier than anyone. I buy out-of-season fresh produce (although I do concentrate on locally grown, seasonal items whenever I can – it just tastes better than, say, asparagus imported from Chile in January).
It’s worth keeping in mind though, that as much as we might wish otherwise, there’s always some risk every time we eat. Buying from local farms doesn’t eliminate the risk, irradiating food doesn’t eliminate the risk, even careful sanitary practices (such as washing even pre-washed greens) don’t eliminate the risk. And if we want to eat cheap out-of-season produce then we increase our risk. It’s one of the downsides of efficiencies of scale. Flaws are replicated.
Footnote: For the past week we’ve been innundated with news reports about contaminated pet food. One Canadian company was responsible for producing 100 brands of pet food and, just like with the spinach, the efficiencies of scale that led to concentrating manufacturing in one place also created an Achilles’ heel in the system.

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