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Charting Our Short Memory for Food Recalls

What's more remarkable than the large-scale food recalls that follow an outbreak of disease is how quickly we forget about them.

The produce is stacking up in Germany. Big piles of cucumbers. Discarded sprouts. Slack sales for veggies. Perhaps the fear is justified, given the scope of the ongoing E. coli outbreak, but what's more remarkable about many of these recalls is how quickly we forget about them.

Look at spinach, back in 2006, after an E. coli outbreak traced to a wild boar in California. Sales slumped, but not for long, according The New York Times:

And, when it came to the biggest ever recall of beef, following a 2007 E. coli O157 outbreak, the reaction at the meat counter was almost negligible:

These knee-jerk responses to food safety woes don't address and reverse the underlying problems. That requires identifying the hazards that account for the largest portion of outbreaks, and, according to a recent report by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, you'll find those in our country's meat supply, costing us about $12.7 billion annually.

We need to look beyond short-term reactions from shoppers and chefs. Aside from cutting back on meat, this means funding the Food Safety Modernization Act. Perhaps it's also time to consider giving the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry, powers similar to those recently approved for the Food and Drug Administration. After all, these recalls shouldn't be forgotten.

Charts via Amy Schoenfeld using data from Perishables Group, SymphonyIRI Group, Nielsen ScanTrack, Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

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