prepackaged sandwichesWe’ve got beef with these bad ’wiches.Spooked by the half-billion salmonella-tainted eggs floating around the United States, some consumers might be tempted to skip the egg salad and opt instead for a “deli sandwich.”

But that could be a painful mistake, especially for Walmart shoppers. Get this, from the USDA’s meat-industry watchdog, the Food Safety and Inspection Services:

Zemco Industries, a Buffalo, N.Y., establishment, is recalling approximately 380,000 pounds of deli meat products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Yikes. And what, pray tell, is “Listeria monocytogenes”? According to FSIS, “listeriosis can cause high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, and nausea.” Worse still, it can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as “serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with weakened immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy.”

And where did this massive cache of dangerous luncheon meat end up? “The products were distributed nationwide to a single retail chain,” the FSIS press release states demurely, too polite to call out retail mammoth Walmart, the largest seller of groceries in the United States. It also refrained from fingering Tyson Foods, the globe’s second-largest meat company, as the ultimate source of the bad meat. Tyson, it turns out, owns Zemco Industries.

You’d never know it from the USDA’s meat-industry watchdog, but this massive recall amounts to a joint venture between two of the largest players in the global food system.

Walmart transformed Tyson’s meat into “Marketside Grab and Go sandwiches,” which included  “the Ham and Swiss Sandwich, Italian Hero Sandwich, Roast Beef and Cheddar Sandwich, and Smokehouse Hero Sandwich,” according to a company press release. And not just a few of them; assuming about four ounces of meat per unit, I estimate that Walmart cranked out some 1.5 million sandwiches.

There are several unnerving things about this recall:

  • Most recalls involve products that are meant to be cooked, like ground beef or eggs. The main risks involve cross-contamination — say, handling raw chicken before making a salad — or undercooking. If you buy E. coli-tainted burger meat, handle it carefully, and cook it to well done, you won’t get sick. But no one cooks a store-bought “deli sandwich.” Consumers who play by all the rules can still get sick.

  • I find it disturbing that the recall involves both pork and beef products (“hot ham,” “roast beef,” etc.) Tyson is the largest U.S. beef packer; it slaughters and processes one of every four cows raised in America. It also wraps up the meat of one-fifth of all U.S. pigs, making it our second-largest pork processor. (For good measure, it also stands as our largest poultry producer.) Its Buffalo-based Zemco unit is where Tyson sends some portion of its vast annual meat output to be transformed into “value-added” products like ham and roast beef. One trembles to consider what about the Zemco factory’s processes caused such an array of products to become tainted.
  • Listeria is just creepy stuff. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the group of bacteria known as listeria “are very resistant to common food preservation agents such as heat, salt, nitrite, and acids. It can also multiply in refrigerated foods.” The agency says that listeria is killed by pasteurization and cooking, but “in certain ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs and deli meats, contamination may occur after cooking but before packaging.” The Alabama Extension Service, weighing in after a 2004 outbreak, describes “ideal conditions” for listeria multiplication that sound very much like industrially produced, wrapped, and refrigerated sandwiches: the bacteria thrives in “low-oxygen environments and colder temperatures.” Oooh.

Walmart is claiming that the bad sandwiches “have a sell by date of August 25, 2010 or before.” But the FSIS press release states that “the meat products were produced on various dates from June 18 to July 2, 2010, and have various ‘Use By’ dates ranging from August 20 to September 10, 2010.”

Why the discrepancy? And was it the sandwiches that were made between June 18 and July 2, or the lunch meats? It would be pretty gross if sandwiches made July 2 had a use-by date of Sept. 10, no?

The FSIS press release directs media with questions about the recall” to call Gary Mickelson of Zemco Industries. Putting offending companies in charge of information management of recalls reminds me of the great power federal authorities gave BP in shaping media coverage of of the Gulf oil spill. I called Mickelson, who, it turns out, works at Tyson’s corporate headquarters. His assistant told me to email him my question about the use-by dates, and I’ll update this post when I’ve heard back.

FSIS claims it has received “no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product”; and that’s great, because the sell-by dates suggest that many of those sandwiches have already been consumed. But a lack of reported cases does not mean that no one has been made sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only a small fraction of food poisonings end up being diagnosed and reported.

Here in the United States, a vast population relies on cheap food from the like of Walmart in tough economic times; and millions of people still lack access to affordable health care — among them many of Walmart’s own employees. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of people got sick from those tainted sandwiches, but didn’t have the resources to do anything but wait it out.

At any rate, when a single plant in Buffalo can produce enough meat for a million sandwiches sold through a single retail chain nationwide, you’re looking at food system leveraged for maximum efficiency. You’re also looking at one able to inflict lots and lots of pain — to us, and to the economy.