Lessons of the Listeria Outbreak: Do Locavores Make Us Less Safe?

As the death toll from listeria in cantaloupe reached 25 this week, marking the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in a quarter-century, some industry insiders are placing blame on the local foods movement. On economic grounds, they may have a point.

The contaminated melons were traced to a self-described small farm in Colorado that the FDA said had “poor sanitary” conditions. The FDA reported Wednesday that it found listeria in numerous areas of the farm’s packing facility, including a floor drain, a produce dryer, and a conveyor belt. Standing water and poorly designed equipment created “the perfect environment for listeria growth and spread,” according to one FDA expert. The farm claimed to have passed an outside audit just days before the outbreak that has sickened more than 100 people and devastated the cantaloupe industry. Farmers in California are plowing their crops under because of the collapse in demand.

That the outbreak occurred on a small farm selling principally to regional buyers is an obvious point, but also an important one because this kind of food contamination is less likely to occur at the large-scale farming operations that locavores love to hate. Consider first that local food systems largely ignore the important role comparative advantage plays in agriculture. Comparative advantage explains why corn is grown in Iowa, almonds in California, and winter vegetables in Florida. The different regions, with different soils, land qualities, climates, and opportunity costs specialize because they can produce their respective crops better than other regions. Comparative advantage implies significant gains from interregional and international trade. And it isn’t just relevant to costs of production and farm yields. It applies also to food safety.

Some regions are just safer places to grow certain crops than others—a point made recently by long-time food industry observer Jim Prevor at his “Perishable Pundit” website. Colorado, he notes, is a particularly unsafe place to grow cantaloupes, which are particularly susceptible to contamination because bacteria can hide out in the crevices of the melon’s rough skin. Rains splatter mud on the melons in Colorado, requiring them to be washed post harvest, a process that can lead to cross contamination among melons and create the moist conditions in which bacteria thrive.

In contrast, dry summers in California and Arizona create safe conditions for cantaloupe production because the crops are watered by drip irrigation and are much less likely to get dirty. Consequently, California cantaloupes bypass the rinsing phase and are packaged dry, sometimes right in the field. But the local foods movement kicks comparative advantage to the curb, favoring foods grown within a certain distance over foods grown in the best conditions.

The small farm is also likely to invest less in preventing food contamination than the big farm because its losses and legal exposure from any outbreak will be smaller. Even if the contaminated farm in Colorado grew half of the state’s 2,200 acres of cantaloupe, its loss from pulling its harvest is only $4 million in revenues. (The total U.S. harvest in 2010 was valued at $314 million.)

A larger farm has much more at stake, both in terms of lost harvest revenues and reputation. Reputation is critical to firms in the food industry as health scares can dramatically reduce demand well into the future. To large firms in the industry, an outbreak can mean hundreds of millions of dollars in foregone sales and liability. This creates a big incentive for these firms to invest in equipment, procedures, and testing to minimize the risk of food contamination at farms and packing sheds. Further, geographic concentration of production allows farms to work jointly and cooperatively to achieve food safety for their mutual protection.

It’s not just that the benefit of food safety investments (i.e., avoided losses) is lower for small farms. Their costs of achieving a given level of risk are often higher, too. Large firms exploit economies of size to achieve food safety standards more cheaply than small firms. A simple example is fencing a field to avoid animal intrusions and fecal contamination. The cost of fencing per unit area is decreasing in the size of the field. At $10 per foot, it costs $4000 to fence a 10,000 square-foot field. The cost of fencing a field 100 percent larger is only $5,650*, less than 50 percent more.

More generally, because of the fixed costs associated with prevention efforts, large firms have an advantage in mitigating against food contamination. They can spread the costs of equipment and personnel over larger quantities of output to lower their average costs. Thus it is no surprise that research by economists at UC Davis, and the USDA found that large food operations have lower costs for complying with food safety standards and are more likely to invest in equipment and pathogen testing to reduce contamination risk. Large firms also often hire food safety specialists to oversee food safety protocols and testing for contamination.

Because the costs of achieving low levels of contamination risk are so high for small farms, they were exempted from stricter food safety standards required by Food Safety Modernization Act signed by President Obama earlier this year. The act calls for the USDA to issue tighter standards for preventive measures and testing on farms and elsewhere in the food supply chain.

Food-safety costs are also greater for the taxpayer when dealing with small-scale, geographically scattered farming. The cost of monitoring regulatory compliance is smaller the fewer and more concentrated the farms become. In the locavore utopia, federal inspectors would have to travel to hundreds of local food sheds and inspect dozens, perhaps hundreds, of farms in each one. As the number of commercial farms increases, either the costs of labor and transportation associated with inspection go up, or the compliance level falls. The local foods movement, then, makes it more costly for the government to assure the food supply is safe.

Finally, assuming small farms are not inherently safer than large farms, then as food retailers endeavor to meet the demands of locavores by sourcing meats and produce from local farms, they must compromise on other priorities, like reducing contamination risk. Food retailers have many objectives in securing produce from suppliers, including minimizing cost and maximizing flavor. The many potentially conflicting objectives impede the retailer’s ability to achieve any one objective to the greatest degree possible. The retailer faces tradeoffs. Sourcing local food from smaller farms that are less effective in mitigating contamination risk almost surely comes at the cost of food safety, a point also m
ade by Mr. Prevor.

The recent listeria outbreak highlights the risk posed by accidental food contamination to consumers and farmers alike. Twenty-five dead. Hundreds sick. And millions of dollars of cantaloupe plowed into the ground. It’s a painful reminder of how much we rely on a safe and secure food system. And it is worth asking if a local food future will put us at greater risk.

*An earlier version incorrectly read, “At $10 per foot, it costs $4000 to fence a 1000 square-foot field. The cost of fencing a field 100 percent larger is only $6,000, a mere 50 percent more.”


The obvious solution is to eliminate restrictions on farmers and, with that, eliminate the reporting requirements. Then the problems would go away because, really, 25 people out of 325 million isn't many. Why allow a little death to restrict liberty? Didn't Patrick Henry say, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Maybe he meant death by cantaloupe.


Any time a "small" farm has enough of anything to sell into a "regional" market, it's not a part of the locavore movement. This wasn't a small farm - more than two acres of melons is big time production, and if you have packing facility, you are not a small farm. Your argument starts with a bad assumption because you don't know anything about farming. Your headline is therefore incorrect and should be changed immediately.


I can fence a 10,000 square foot field for $4000, not the 1,000 sq-foot field mentioned in the article. The field does need to be square to do it, however.

Mike B

It seems that both those on the extreme right and left are more than willing to substitute facts and evidence for their own self-indulgent world views. If only we could go back in time and insert a passage in the Bible where Jesus performs a peer-reviewed study then acts on its counter-intuitive conclusions to great success.


So what you're saying is... if only everyone else in the world worshiped my god (i.e. science).


It can and has happened at large food processing plants as well: http://www.cbc.ca/news/story/2009/08/24/maple-leaf-anniversary-listeriosis.html

May have addressed economic reasons (which are obvious), but I still believe the problem of listeria isn't resolved within your argument.


The example of the listeria outbreak in cantaloupe actually undermines your point about local food. The outbreak from Colorado-grown cantaloupe caused deaths in 26 states, including as far away as Maryland and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile no locals were killed (or sickened-to my knowledge). The farm that produced these cantaloupe sold to mass-retailers and grocers. The farms that sell locally from farm-stands in Southern Colorado produced safe melons, which by-the-way are also widely regarded as the best melons in the world.

Enter your name...

Well, not exactly. Strict locavores don't eat anything that wasn't grown in their neighborhood, which means not eating cantaloupe (or berries, or stone fruits, or...) at all for much of the year if you live in the upper Midwest.

However, the vast majority aren't strict, and most of them choose "the closest cantaloupe, even if it's from 1000 miles away", i.e., the ones from Colorado even if they live in Minnesota, on the grounds that Colorado is closer than California, rather than no cantaloupe at all.


"Finally, assuming small farms are not inherently safer than large farms..." This is the fundamental unproven assumption of the article. There are a lot of reasons that one can point to as to why a large farm should be safer. The question is if there is any data that actually supports your assumption.

Fundamentally, there is the issue that most large scale operations are designed from the ground up to maximize profit. In light of this, the letter of the law is followed, but not the spirit of trying to actually protect the food supply. The fact that we have to introduce food irradiation is a good indicator of this problem.

Second, in light of maximizing profits, the larger scale operation will have greater ability and incentive to externalize costs. Again, using the meat industry as an example taking actions such as creating a manure pit of toxic waste makes sense for a large scale cattle operation. It doesn't make as much sense for the poly-cultural farmer who has to maximize resources.

If large scale operations have a point on economic grounds, than their point would be one that does not take into account a massive amount of extenalities and rather focuses very narrowly on cost of compliance and possible profit.

All of my comments (and the articles as well) are conjecture. I can give you reason why the polycultural small scale farmer should be safer, and you can tell me why a large scale operation is so, but unless there is data to back up your hypothesis, this whole argument is specious.



Now...hang on a second. I'm not a locavore, but my understanding of them is that they generally eat food grown within a small(50-100 miles) radius. This outbreak occurred all over the US, so the farm from whence the outbreak occurred was not a farm that caters to locavores.

Your point about small vs large farms may stand, but don't try to blame people who are entirely unrelated to the issue.

Paul Kelly

As multiple other posters are citing, larger scale operations do not have any reason to be considered safer. Many (if not most) of the previous scares were from those mega farms. The scale that this producer sold to is also much larger than what most local buyers would consider small. Anyone who reads The Jungle can also in fact tell you that larger companies do not ensure better safety standards.


Obviously not a real estate maven. a 1,000 square foot parcel can be 31.6 by 31.6 feet, a 2,000 square foot parcel 44.7 by 44.7 feet. I assume you meant a 10,000 square foot parcel, 100 x 100 to get to $4,000 worth of fencing. A 20,000 square foot parcel would be $5,600 at 141 feet square. I have to agree with Mark that this doesn't sound like locavore-type production.

As for large scale farming in California, I suggest that next time you're driving on I-5 you stop and take a close look at some of the conditions on the big farms. Whenever a menu says "hand-gathered field greens" I always want to ask if the hands had been washed recently.


This was no small farm:
" Jensen Farms is no small farm: it recalled 300,000 cases of cantaloupes—roughly 2,700,000 melons. Those melons have traveled far and wide, and, because of the complex, many-tiered food distribution system, nobody knows where they all ended up. "

This farm would not be considered sourcing local, so you are misrepresenting the facts.


How is this a "locavore" outbreak? Illnesses are in 26 states -- spanning the length of our massive country. Coast-to-coast, border-to-border. Most definitions of "local" don't span more than a few hundred miles.

Joshua Northey

Locavorism is simply stupid in a world with 7 billion people. It makes ZERO sense.

Maybe if we cull the population back to 1 billion we can try little boutique ecological policies like this, but until then it:

a) Is expensive
b) Unsanitary
c) Inefficient
d) Makes almost no impact ecologically

Just a feel good policy for upper-middle class and upper class liberals.


Deaths in 12 states, illnesses in 26 states. I don't see how that is 'local foods'.

This is small farming vs. large scale farming. 'Industry insiders' want to wipe out their small time competition? Shocking.


This article is so utterly flawed and reflects such poor understanding of a) farming, b) the local-foods movement, and c) public health that it really diminishes my usually high regard for the work that Freakonomics does. Apparently the only thing the author understands is economics, which, though perfectly admirable and a necessary component of the food safety debate, is woefully insufficient for making such broad assertions. Beyond Mr. Sexton's concerns about which region is ideally suited to growing a particular crop (a very thin argument), beyond his lack of understanding of what constitutes a "small farm" (Jensen Farms is not, simply put), beyond his dead-end championing of the efficiencies of large farms (agricultural consolidation got us in this mess), there isn't even the recognition of the economic benefits of a resilient food system with products coming from farm small, medium, and large, from around the nation. What will Mr. "Bigger is Better" Sexton eat for breakfast when a drought in CA and AZ dries up all of their geographically-advantaged canteloupes? What about when flooding in the midwest destroys geographically-advantaged grain crops? And just what events can Mr. Sexton point to in the past ten years of food recalls to suggest that bigger is actually safer? Eggs? Spinach? Peanut butter? Salad greens? Ground beef? Ground turkey? And how many of those occurred at the hands of farmers who actually are small and local?



Part of the locavore ethos is to eat food that make sense to grow locally. I would think a locavore would simply not eat cantaloupe if not in a region favorable to growing cantaloupe.


The farm in question farmed over 480 acres of cantelopes this year. They also farm corn, alfalfa, pumpkins, and wheat. And they have their own processing facility that distributes their crops all across the country, not locally.

They can "self describe" all they want. They are not a small farm. And the writer of this piece should have done their homework.