Murphy: California’s ‘Cartgate’

This employee obviously isn't using proper handling practices, but is it cause for a national uproar? Probably not. ( Dan Murphy )

According to multiple news sources, USDA official are now planning to investigate a food-safety violation that initially exploded as a social media accusation against national retailer Costco.

Not only did the implications in the original post (see photo) prove to be inaccurate, but the incident and the public’s reactions underscored how warped our values have become as an “enlightened” post-modern society.

We accept, seemingly without much of a reaction, the thousands of people who get killed and injured — some with permanent mental and physical disabilities — in automobile accidents every single month of every single year. As long as it’s not us or someone we care about getting in a wreck, we’re good to go.

Yet a photo of a guy pushing a shopping cart full of slabs of meat? The horror! This calls for an immediate investigation, followed by prosecution and punishment for the offenders!

The online commenters who reacted so vehemently are getting the first part of their wish: USDA is now getting involved.

But for those who don’t spend hours every day on Facebook or Twitter, here’s what happened.

Putting It Into Context
A woman named Loretta Seto was on a shopping trip to the 99 Ranch Market, a grocery store in San Jose, Calif. According to NBC, Seto was planning to purchase meat for a weekend barbecue when she spotted two men delivering raw meat in shopping carts at the entrance to the market. She said her immediate reaction was to take photos of the incident and then post them on Facebook, “as a warning” to other shoppers planning to patronize the store.

“Raw meat was being transported in Costco shopping carts,” she told the local television affiliate NBC Bay Area. “I don’t know where it goes — does it go down the aisle and touch all the products? I don’t know. It was absolutely horrific in my opinion.”

Part of the initial online outrage was mistakenly directed at Costco, which had no involvement in the incident, other than the unfortunate circumstance of its branded shopping carts appearing in Seto’s online post. (Of course, in yet more examples of corporate courage, Costco’s spokesperson declined to comment, while the grocery store responded on Facebook by stating, “We are taking the necessary steps to resolve this issue by investigating this case further and filing a complaint against our vendor.”)

Not to condone transporting pork ribs across a parking lot in shopping carts, but reactions to the incident were a bit over the top.

“No doubt [this is] a health code violation,” wrote one Facebook user. “You could get really sick, especially a young child.”

Yes, it’s undoubtedly a health code violation, but we’re talking about raw pork ribs that are going to be cooked and/or smoked and/or baked and/or grilled for upwards of several hours. Whatever possible contamination could have occurred while being transported from a truck to the store’s cooler isn’t going to survive the cooking process.

And no restaurant, nor any backyard cookout artist, ever serves ribs rare. Nobody would eat them.

Besides, haven’t we all been instructed for going on 20-plus year now to handle all raw meat with the understanding that bacteria are present, even if the products in question hadn’t been hauled across a suburban parking lot in a shopping cart?

Now, it’s true that the 99 Ranch Market isn’t exactly setting the gold standard for food-safety compliance. According to a report in January, a county health inspector highlighted several “major risk factors and violations” in the store’s meat department, including improper hand washing, food debris in the slicers and grinders, and dirty meat trays.

And there was this other problem: the store’s seafood and meat department got shut down briefly back in October 2017 after inspectors discovered roaches on the premises.

So now USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service officials say they will be tag teaming with local authorities after the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health launched a probe of the incident and the store’s operations last week. Hopefully, there will be changes made to preclude a repeat of the shopping cart incident, as well as further sanitary violations.

That said, I still contend that freaking out over Seto’s Facebook post is indicative of our misplaced priorities.

While we’re getting incensed at meat being delivered in a shopping cart, how about the hundreds of homeless people — including many young children — who on that same day in San Jose were lined up at food banks and at local churches waiting for a free meal? Those people would love to be provided with a serving of ribs, and not a one would disdain the meal because the meat spent two minutes in a shopping cart.

As a society, we can and should voice our disapproval of operators who fail to maintain proper health and safety standards.

But let’s reserve the outrage for problems that are substantive and systemic, not the ones that merely offend our delicate sensibilities.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.