A Fight Worth Having
One day in late spring in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, FDA inspectors visited the headquarters of Sargento cheese in Plymouth, Wisconsin—a routine visit as part of the federal government’s efforts to ensure the safety of the food we eat. The inspectors took samples of cheese to test for bacteria. Sargento conducted tests on cheese from the same lot. A week later, the results from both sets of tests were in—the cheese was bacteria-free. Sargento, having gotten the all-clear from the government, shipped the cheese to stores across the country.
Two months later, however, the FDA called back. There had been a mistake. A subsequent test had found traces of listeria—bacteria that can be fatal if ingested by people with immunodeficiencies. Sargento retested their samples. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture conducted an independent test. The FDA retested, too. The results of the testing confirmed the earlier tests—the cheese was bacteria-free and fine to eat.
But the FDA has a “zero tolerance” policy on listeria and formally recommended that Sargento recall the cheese. Sargento pushed back on the decision, pointing out that multiple tests—internal and governmental, taken before and after the test that found listeria—had found the cheese bacteria-free. The FDA then made the kind of demand that only the government can make: Either you issue a “voluntary” recall or we will order you to do it.