I’m worried about our food supply. No, I’m not terribly concerned that terrorists will contaminate our grain silos with bio-toxins. As with so many things, Americans have become our own worst enemies, when it comes to food. I stopped buying food in supermarkets, for the most part, years ago, because what sits on those shelves isn’t food. It’s processed chemicals with elements that may or may not be derived from organic matter. There’s no food in our food.

I do most of my grocery shopping in Whole Foods – a luxury that may force me to take out a second mortgage at some point – and Trader Joe’s. But what I saw at my local Trader Joe’s the other day has thrown my relationship with that store into peril. I’ve written them a letter. Here is the text:

Dear Lauree Bradley, Director of Product Information
Trader Joe’s Company
538 Mission Street
South Pasadena, California
91031-6270

During a recent shopping trip to Trader Joe’s in [location redacted], I observed a situation that imperils not only food quality but safety. I reported this situation to two store managers and my concern was received with total nonchalance.

I have been purchasing Trader Joe’s frozen chicken parts for years. On Friday, when I attempted to take a bag from the freezer bin, I observed that the bags near the top were completely thawed. Other bags were thawed to varying degrees. I assumed that the freezer was broken and informed the first employee I saw. He assured me that it was a natural result of the defrost cycle of the freezer and began to remove the chicken that was completely thawed and sloshing in its juices in the bags. I asked to speak to a manager.

The manager also assured me that the situation was due to the defrosting of the freezer and said she was sorry that I “had to see that.” She offered me a bag from the bottom of the freezer that appeared to be completely frozen. I said, no thank you. How could I tell what bags may have been reshuffled to the bottom of the freezer and refrozen? Depending on how completely that chicken has thawed, there is a serious risk of contamination, let alone the loss of quality caused by even partial thawing and refreezing. I was assured by the manager that it wasn’t a problem, because the frozen chicken sells so quickly. I disagree.

After purchasing the rest of my groceries, and heading for the car, I noticed that I had been overcharged 50 cents for a bottle of Marsala wine. I went back into the store and located another manager, who checked the shelf and conceded that I had been overcharged and would be refunded. I took the opportunity to inform him of my disgust over the condition of the frozen chicken. He also assured me that it was just part of the defrost cycle and that it wasn’t a problem, as the thawed chicken was removed when it was observed by staff or customers. This, I informed him, is not a system of regulation! He graciously refunded me the entire cost of my Marsala, which I now realize I have little use for, as I have no chicken.

I don’t know what disturbs me more; the fact that I observed perishables thawing in the freezer bins, or the fact that store managers exhibited so little concern over a potential public health risk. Those bins also contain frozen prepared meals, raw shellfish, and stuffed meats. Such items are far less forgiving of thawing and refreezing than meats alone.

I have a small child. As of now, I am not comfortable feeding her anything from a Trader Joe’s freezer bin. I cannot be as cavalier about her health — nay, her life — as the managers and staff of the [redacted] Trader Joe’s.

I am left with a number of nagging questions:

  1. Was an episode of violent nausea I experienced a couple of weeks ago after eating a meal including Trader Joe’s frozen chicken caused by that chicken or some other factor? I consumed the rest of the bag without incident, so I assumed it was a fluke. Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps I just got lucky.
  2. How is it that my own freezer remains frost-free without periodically thawing out all my food, when Trader Joe’s freezer bins are incapable of the same feat?
  3. Is the management of Trader Joe’s aware of the risk posed by food poisoning?
  4. Can Trader Joe’s afford to eat the profit losses caused by spoilage of its frozen food — even if it is confined to those items eye-balled by staff and customers — or are those losses being passed on to consumers in the form of price increases?
  5. Why do East Coast Trader Joe’s stores pale in comparison to the West Coast stores, in terms of inventory, customer service, price/value, etc? I realize that’s a separate issue. I just needed to get that off my chest.

If you were wondering how a nation of such vast wealth as the United States manages to produce 76 million cases of food poisoning per year, well, mystery solved. Let’s put that number into perspective shall we? From Wikipedia: the United States logs 26,000 cases of food borne illness for every 100,000 inhabitants. The United Kingdom sees 3,400 cases for 100,000 inhabitants, and France, 1,210 cases for 100,000 inhabitants. We are devolving into a third world country. We have a population so uneducated that two store managers, responsible for food handling, looked at me like I was a crazy person, when I pointed out that frozen food should not be stored in warm freezers.

And don’t expect government oversight to be the answer. Our government is too busy handing our port security over to countries with ties to terrorism and the writing of our legislation to the industries they are supposed to be regulating. We’ll have to rely on our new found religion of “free market fundamentalism” to work it’s corrective magic. John Stossel would probably tell me that Trader Joe’s has the right idea, because now they can charge 10 times the regular price for those packages of chicken they can guarantee were never thawed and refrozen.

This morning I received two emails about pending legislation that will further undercut the rights of consumers to know what dangers lurk in their food. H.R 4167 will actually negate state labeling laws, forcing them to comply with the more lax federal standards. This effort is being spearheaded by Congressional Republicans – you know, the party devoted state rights – at the behest of Grocery Manufacturers of America. (So call your Congressperson and by all means read this front page article by Geov Parrish.)

If you think federal labeling laws are sufficient, think again. Recently, McDonald’s “voluntarily” disclosed that their fries derive their flavor from wheat and dairy ingredients, to which some people are very allergic. I checked. It really is voluntary on their part, because the woefully insufficient labeling law — a law that doesn’t even require disclosure of allergenic substances in refined oils — provides an exemption for restaurants. Here’s my favorite part of the McDonald’s statement.

McDonald’s director of global nutrition, Cathy Kapica, said its potato suppliers remove all wheat and dairy proteins, such as gluten, which can cause allergic reactions.

Because everybody knows that potatoes come out of the ground just chock full of wheat and dairy.

For my part I swore off McDonald’s fries after learning from the movie “Supersize Me” that they don’t biodegrade. A jar of McDonald’s fries left sitting on a shelf changes little over weeks, months, and years. Perhaps it’s small of me but I’m a little put off by the idea of food that has a half-life longer than plutonium.

I write this with full knowledge that I may be sued for food disparagement. Many states now have laws to protect vulnerable corporations from citizens maligning their perishables. It was such a statute that Texas cattle ranchers used to punish Oprah for expressing her fear of mad cows. Oprah won that fight, and presumably a victory for speech, but that was before our political climate devolved into one of “first amendment zones” to protect the President from dissent If you haven’t noticed, corporate rights trump consumer rights in nearly every arena now. So it’s probably only a matter of time before publishing a letter of complaint to a grocer will land me in court. And if Oprah’s experience is any guide, I’ll have to hire Dr. Phil to help me “get real.” That’s an indignity I don’t know if I’d survive. I’m a strong woman but I have my limits.

Crossposted at The Blogging Curmudgeon.

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