Blue Bell and the Immaculate Listeria Outbreak

After months of quietly pulling specific products in an effort to avoid a scandal, on April 20, Blue Bell, the beloved Southern ice cream company, recalled all of its products. The slow-moving incident started in January, when two inspectors found Listeria Monocytogenes in two products from the Brenham plant which the CDC matched to a 2014 outbreak. Without announcing anything, Blue Bell responded by retrieving only products made on the same line, in the same plant. A month later, the line was shut down and a small recall was made public. But Listeria kept showing up in different products made in different plants, prompting Blue Bell to respond unilaterally. By then, shady details were surfacing. Based on FDA inspection reports, Blue Bell was aware of the Listeria problem for at least the last two years, and testing connected the company to 10 separate cases of Listeria infection dating back to 2010.

Public outrage about the incident flared on social media, but not at the responsible party. To most people, the real tragedy was losing Blue Bell ice cream, perhaps permanently, at the height of spring. Their faith in Blue Bell as a company could not be shaken, despite a seemingly daily update confirming Blue Bell’s culpability in the contamination that claimed three lives.

To Blue Bell fans, their memory of the incident is only a Blue Bell-less summer. The PR response from Blue Bell was minimal because a spontaneous, grassroots campaign did the work for them. The only apology came after the April 20 recall, and it was accompanied by little explanation.

I was confused every time I saw people on Facebook share news about Bluebell. If the story was about the outbreak, the accompanying comment conveyed a blind devotion to the ice cream and a belief that this event represented an evil thing happening to a good company. It was not just my Facebook friends exhibiting a flood of support for the struggling company. Lawn signs were distributed that read, “God bless Blue Bell” with the company’s logo. Ted Cruz posed for a photo with a similar sign. A prayer vigil was held in Brenham. Judging by these reactions, you would think that people see bacterial contamination as a work of the devil instead of the predictable result of years of bad hygiene.

What does it take for a brand to skate through such a scandal untarnished in a society where a bottle of hand sanitizer adorns almost every desk, antibiotics are liberally ingested, and expiration dates are gospel? Consider a 1993 E. Coli outbreak known simultaneously as the “Pearl Harbor” and the “9/11” of the food industry. Contaminated frozen burger patties were sent out to 73 Jack in the Box restaurants in four western states. Many burgers were served without being cooked at the proper, bacteria-killing temperature. A ton of people got sick, and four kids died. People were furious with Jack in the Box. The restaurants were inundated with angry phone calls accusing them of being baby killers.

Jack in the Box had to beg customers to come in by offering dramatically slashed prices; still, people avoided the restaurant. Jack in the Box had to completely rebrand itself with an aggressive marketing campaign to come back from the edge. Jack, the company’s suit-wearing clown mascot, murdered the entire board of the company while maintaining a cool composure in this commercial. I guess this was supposed to be the company’s Phoenix myth, but if you ask me, I think it’s a disturbing attempt to gratify a bloodthirsty public with sweet revenge. Interestingly, nobody was actually fired, let alone blown up, but the spectacle worked.

There are a number of differences between the two cases that could explain why Blue Bell got off relatively easily. The scale of the Jack in the Box outbreak was much larger (although the amount of deaths caused was almost the same). Blue Bell killed elderly people, and Jack in the Box killed one baby and three very young children. And media has certainly changed in the past 20 years.

While I can’t prove it to you, despite all of the differences, I think Blue Bell’s Christian ethos is what saved it from the kind of excoriation typically reserved for food poisoners. Blue Bell was saved because it is saved. The third-largest ice cream producer in the country wins devotion by convincing its customers that it is not the third-largest ice cream producer in the country. Blue Bell’s brand is protected by a halo of small town values and a Southern aw-shucks attitude summed up by one of their slogans, “we eat all we can, and sell the rest” —Jesus, they must eat a lot of ice cream if they produce 100,000 gallons a day and only “sell the rest”.

Blue Bell is currently in phase one of its resurrection with phase two coming soon. B Fans of the ice cream faithfully share each new press release from the company on social media with fanatic enthusiasm. A scan through recent tweets containing the word “Blue Bell” reveal people planning road trips to areas covered by phase one, people complaining about their withdrawals, and at least one person blaming democrats for the shortage. It was weird.

Perhaps people don’t believe that Blue Bell did anything wrong in the first place. Thankfully, we have plenty of disgruntled former employees that Blue Bell cut loose because of the recall who can clear that up. The picture is clear: Blue Bell sacrificed sanitation for growth. Many employees were aware of the issues, which they reported to their supervisors to no avail. We don’t have to wonder if the incident was a freak accident that may or may not have been caused by the devil.

Blue Bell is not your neighbor making hand-churned ice cream for their backyard barbecue. They are a large company managing multiple ice cream factories. Being in God’s favor is no substitute for best hygiene practices.

Sanitary food preparation should not be left to fate. Listeria is a common genus of bacteria that, unlike other microbes, thrive at low temperatures. While infectious microbes are a formidable and often unpredictable foe, we trust our food manufacturers to put safety above all else. Blue Bell’s actions were inexcusable and directly caused three deaths. I’m disturbed that they were let off the hook so easily. I guess I just don’t understand how people can be so loyal to an ice cream company. Is it really that good?



The Thick and Thin of the GMO debate

Last week I attended a lecture on GMOs by Richard Roberts, a scientist who received the 1993 Nobel Prize for discovering introns (sequences of non-coding DNA that are interspersed in coding regions) and the mechanism of gene splicing.

His talk framed GMO technology as a savior to the third world, with malnutrition and illness being alleviated by foods modified to produce more vitamins and minerals.

Roberts supported his thesis by centering his talk around golden rice, a rice cultivar that’s been modified to make beta-carotenes, precursors to vitamin A, that give the rice its distinctive golden hue.

Golden rice is an outlier when it comes to most GM foods. It’s intended for populations in developing countries (most GM food is grown in the U.S.A). It’s modified to produce a vital nutrient (the most prolific GM crops, soy and corn, produce pesticide and herbicide resistance). It’s intended for direct human consumption (most GM crops are grown for animal feed, or for their oil and sugar). And there are no royalty fees or seed-saving restrictions for farmers making less than $10,000 a year (farmers in the U.S.A. must abide by terms of use contracts, pay fees and not save seeds of crops under patent protection).

However, despite focusing on a GMO outlier, Roberts asserted that any perspective that criticized or rejected GMO technology in general—such as the European Union’s tight restrictions around GMfood—was anti-science and based purely on “emotion and fear.”

However, many in the audience brought up a variety of points on how suspicion of GMOs can stem from more than fear of health-concerns—the topic Roberts framed as being the public’s main issue. Instead the questions focused on:

  1. Intellectual property and questions of ownership.

  2. The role of local diets, and how supplemented foods may not work as well in the field as they do in research trials. (Most golden rice trials have been conducted using American subjects).

  3. Unintentionally promoting herbicide/pesticide resistance in weeds, and the potential for genetic drift between GMO cultivars and wild plants. (See Horseweed for an example of this).

The audience questions referenced actual cases and highlighted the complexities of an otherwise scientifically sound development. In contrast, Richards’ replies echoed the conceptual nature of his talk, and boiled down to all technologies have their pluses and minuses.

That’s true. But society and culture, through laws, business practices and behaviors of communities and individuals, control where the biggest impacts of a technology are most likely to be, how it develops and how it is applied.

Despite the large role of “unscientific” influences, it’s usually the scientists that play the largest role in introducing a technology to the world, and influencing what questions are legitimate. Other views are portrayed as irrational or unqualified or, as Roberts put it, “emotional.”

John Evans, a sociologist at UC San Diego who studies biotechnology, describes the tendency of scientific experts to be seen as more qualified among others as the “thin description” and credits its rise with the field of modern molecular genetics in the 1950s. 

Genetics enabled life’s processes, from animal reproduction to agriculture, to be understood and manipulated in an empirical, testable and precise manner, which led to issues surrounding life to be examined through a similar lens while rejecting others, says Evans.

“Those concerned with other issues were labeled irrational and ultimately voices of the public were excluded from serious consideration,” says Lianne McTavish, an art history professor at the University of Alberta, paraphrasing Evans in her chapter on the rhetoric of embryo depiction through time in the book “The ‘Healthy’ Embryo.”

I saw signs of the thin description in Roberts’ characterization of all GMO critics as “emotional.” But I also saw it manifest in another way at the lecture.

After the lecture I asked an audience attendee if he was interested in writing a piece for Vector. He had questioned Roberts on his characterization of GMO-critiques as emotional in light of very real questions of intellectual property and local control of agriculture systems.

His immediate response to writing a piece was “I’m no expert.”

I said that you don’t need to be.

To combat “thin description” that has a narrowing effect on discussion, Evans instead promotes “thick description,” an analysis that McTavish sums up as “interpretation attuned to the contexts and practices within which social meaning is produced.”

In other words, to understand the multifaceted consequences of a technology in the world, we need more voices than those so heavily invested in a technology's creation and study. These perspectives should be well-informed, well-developed and well-researched. And they should reach outside of the walls of the R&D lab.

 So have something to say about GMOs? We’re collecting submissions for our first issue dedicated to exploring the technology. Please drop us a line.

NOTE:  Roberts gave the same presentation I heard at a  Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting talk. The presentation is called a "Crime Against Humanity" and can be viewed here




GMO Reform Is Coming...But Not in the Right Places

At the beginning of July the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy issued a memorandum announcing a plan to improve the transparency around the health and environmental safety regulations of biotechnology products, such as GMOs.  

The public’s wariness around GMOs often stems from these points. People are worried about modified genes causing disease in their bodies, or GMO crops hybridizing with wild species and creating genetically enhanced “super weeds.”


It’s a good start that the White House says it will be addressing these concerns through transparency. But these are not the issues that worry me about GMO technology. 

It’s the patent law they’re governed by.

Currently, in the United States and Canada, GMOs are governed by the same patent law that any other non-biological invention is. That means that laws governing ownership and use of a mechanical device, like a new airplane engine, and a biological organism, like herbicide-resistant soy, are the same.

A key and obvious difference between the two, is that the soy, left to its own devices in a suitable environment will reproduce and make copies of itself. An airplane engine will not without a human purposely assembling it. 

The self-reproducing nature of living things has raised legal questions around ownership of progeny. And with patent law to guide them, supreme courts in both the United States and Canada have taken the position that GMO seed saving, and contamination of a conventional or organic field by GMOs, can be considered patent infringement.

These rulings have impacted the autonomy of farmers to produce crops the best way they see fit. For example, the inability to save GMO seeds makes farmers more susceptible to GMO seed price increases, or changes in the seeds’ terms of use agreements they may not want to abide by.

They have also raised questions of liability in non-GMO farmers who have their crop contaminated. In the famous case Schmeiser vs. Monsanto Canada, canola farmer Percy Schmeiser was successfully sued by biotech giant Monsanto for patent infringement after the court ruled that Schmeiser had knowingly allowed GMO canola to grow in his field without paying for the license to do so; Schmeiser said the GMO canola came from seeds that were produced by contaminants that appeared in his field a year prior, but was still found to be in the wrong because he "knew or ought to have known" the GMO plants required a license to grow.   

The case showed that patent law trumped property rights and raised questions about the future of farming near GMOs. In the words of Gabriela Pechlander, in her book Corporate Crops

"Schmeiser brought to light the nontechnological changes that biotechnology brought to farming and raised the prospect that ordinary farmers, farming in the same manner that they always had, could find themselves liable for patent infringement." 

The option to just reject GMOs for non-modified varieties is becoming less and less feasible—conventional seeds require more labor and pesticide/herbicide products than GMOS, making them less profitable. And as the Schmeiser case shows, farmers may potentially be held liable for failing to uproot GMO crops that end up growing in their field due to cross contamination. The contamination factor also puts in question the viability of non-GMO farms to even exist alongside GMO farms.

In this light, I think patent law surrounding GMOs is in dire need of an update. The ability for life to reproduce and spread without human intervention makes it distinct from all other patentable items. We need a legislative reform that considers this distinct ability and holds patent holders accountable when a seed ends up somewhere it wasn’t intended to be (such as tacos on a grocery store shelf or a famer’s field) as well as puts limitations on what a company can require a patent-user to abide by.

Otherwise, these cases will be slanted in favor of patent-holders before they even get to the courthouse.





Introducing Our First Topic

For our first issue, we’d like to publish a potpourri of writing and artwork that revolve around, are related to, inspired by, or reminiscent of the topic of genetically modified organisms — GMOs.

GMOs have a pretty bad reputation among the general population. 52% of those surveyed in a recent ABC News poll believe them to be unsafe for consumption. Many people actively avoid them and look for “GMO-free” labels provided by the independent labeling group, Non-GMO Project or the manufacturer.

The consensus from the scientific community is that GMOs are safe. There are some fringe GMO opponents that would have you believe that Monsanto has the entire scientific community in its pocket, but that seems like an unlikely scenario. In the twenty years since genetic engineering was applied to crops, there has been no credible evidence to suggest that eating GM food is any more harmful than eating any other food. Many of the potential health threats that people opposed to GMOs reference again and again are simply nonexistent. As an example, there is an oft-cited theory that the recent increase in gluten allergies can be linked to GM wheat. There is not currently and has never been a GM strain of wheat approved for commercial cultivation. Clearly, there is some confusion.

I do not point out this example to trivialize people’s positions. Safety may not be the issue, but I believe there is probably good cause for genetic engineering’s infamy. Besides, safety should not be the only metric by which we are evaluating new technologies.  

It is understandable how a technology that affects food can cause so much controversy. Eating is a basic yet profound necessity; every animal eats to live, but for humans, agriculture is at the heart of every civilization, and cuisine is at the heart of every culture. In today’s society, scientifically produced food evokes sinister images of white lab coats, human guinea pigs, and freakish food — frankenfood is an unfortunate but commonly used epithet for GMOs. Natural, wholesome, and organic are qualities that the modern consumer values, and to many, genetic engineering is just not compatible with these values.

Limiting the use of the term natural to only certain types of agriculture is slippery business when you actually think about it. Agriculture is a human process, and since its inception humans have technically been modifying the genes of various plants and animals through artificial selection. Potatoes started out as a poisonous tuber, tomatoes a sour berry, and corn a blade of grass. In the 20th century, our ability to modify genes expanded rapidly with the help of modern genetics, radiation and advances in synthetic chemistry. These technologies allowed scientists to develop novel traits with mutagenesis and hybrid strains with more distantly related species These new strains were often sterile yet very hearty. Plants produced through these techniques are considered natural.  

To most people the line is only drawn when we use molecular cloning techniques to insert targeted and exogenous sequences into the native DNA. When the genes are going from one species to another species, the GMO is transgenic. Cisgenic GMOs use genes from the same species. While transgenic GMOs seem to galvanize people a bit more (fish tomatoes??!!!??), people view both technologies as a dangerous meddling with nature by man.  

I’m very curious about this boundary between natural and abhorrent. What is natural, anyway, and what makes it desirable?