"There's shit in the meat."
That's the money quote from the movie version of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," released last month, that reverberated as I scanned the Google News headlines about how nine Taco Bells in New Jersey and Long Island are closed on suspicions they gave 39 people E. coli poisoning, two of them critically so.
Few Americans have seen the movie: it has yet to pass $1 million in U.S. box office receipts. And it's not like I'm dancing on anyone's sickbeds: my high-school boyfriend had E. coli poisoning, from bad oysters in New Orleans; it claimed six weeks and 25 pounds of the poor guy, so I know it's no laughing matter. That said, while the exact ingredient carrying the toxic bacteria hasn't been identified — nor has the E. coli been confirmed as the super strain O157:H7 that contaminated spinach this fall — it's just that, well, here we are again: more evidence that our food system is dangerously broken.
Reassuringly, the fast-food diners in these cases were stricken as early as Nov. 17, but health officials delayed announcing the outbreak "in part over concerns for possible overreaction by the public," according to the New York Times. Yet don't worry — it's safe to eat at Taco Bell now that "whatever may have occurred has most likely passed through the system," the company told a Bloomberg reporter. Yeah. Literally?
This is unconscionable. California officials wasted no time whatsoever on shutting down tiny Organic Pastures Dairy's operations on suspicions that its raw milk was the cause of several children's E. coli poisoning (that bacteria was never found in the milk or the dairy), but they let at least several days go by rather than antagonize a major fast-food franchise — one who has been the source of an E. coli outbreak in the recent past. Taco Bell has about 5,800 outlets in the United States (some are company-owned, others franchises); it's a subsidiary of Yum Brands, which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and other chains. It's a major, well-connected player in the "casual dining" lobbying industry.
As at least one article points out, the franchises were all buying in bulk from the same few suppliers. Sounding the alarm as soon as officials suspected the culprit could almost definitely have prevented some of the infections. Meanwhile, Yum Brands' stock went up 68 cents today.