‘Poisoned’ takes Netflix by storm

A review of ‘Poisoned,’ Netflix’s new documentary about food safety. Regulators urged to include EBT in financial protection regs. Plus, a key anti-hunger group opposes Booker-Rubio SNAP bill.

A large field of romaine lettuce in California - set against a blue sky with clouds. Irrigation is spraying water across the lettuce.

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! In case you missed it, this little publication just turned one! I reflected on this milestone in a newsletter for paid subscribers last week. I also posted an excerpt on LinkedIn and a thread with some year one highlights on Twitter.

Thank you: As I noted last week, one of the most rewarding aspects of writing Food Fix has been how much you all have appreciated reading it. Thank you for being here! And thanks for spreading the word. Readership has tripled since launching last August, in large part thanks to all of you. 

BRB: The newsletter is going on break for the next few weeks! Congress is out, DC is grinding to a halt, and judging by how many out of office replies I’m getting, many of you are taking breaks right now, too. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming after Labor Day. 

As always, I truly welcome your feedback. What do you love here? What topics do you want me to cover? Reply to this email or drop me a note: helena@foodfix.co.

Alright, let’s get to it –



Today, in Food Fix: 

– A review of ‘Poisoned,’ Netflix’s new documentary about food safety 

– Regulators urged to include EBT in financial protection regs

– Key anti-hunger group opposes Booker-Rubio SNAP bill


‘Poisoned’ takes Netflix by storm

Last week, Netflix released ‘Poisoned,’ a new documentary about food safety in the U.S., and it has quickly become one of the most watched movies on the platform.

The film seems to be breaking through, not just to consumers, but also to the food policy world – my phone has been blowing up as consumer advocates, government officials, lobbyists and industry leaders watch it. It’s also been reviewed by the likes of the Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone.

Poisoned 101: The movie opens with a lengthy montage of politicians and other leaders claiming that the American food supply is the safest in the world, but this drumbeat of claims is interspersed with newscast footage of countless deadly foodborne illness outbreaks and large-scale recalls – an unsettling juxtaposition. The film’s narrative arc follows well-known plaintiffs attorney, Bill Marler, throughout his career representing victims of foodborne illness. As I’ve mentioned here before: Nearly a decade ago, I worked for Food Safety News, a site founded by Marler, and I’ve known him for many years. Bill really is in a league of his own when it comes to food safety advocacy and, frankly, hell-raising – something both his fans and his critics would agree on.

How Jack in the Box cleaned up beef: Next, the film dives into the history of the deadly 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, which was pinned on undercooked beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Back at Food Safety News, I remember writing about this outbreak in a few lookback pieces – I even dug into the Clinton presidential archives. I got to know many of the key figures and even though I know the story well, this part of the movie still wrecked me. Darin Detwiler gives a heartbreaking account of his son, Riley, dying from a secondary infection that developed into kidney failure. This particular outbreak has always hit close to home for me, too – I grew up outside of Seattle (the epicenter of the outbreak) and one of my second grade classmates almost died.

The movie does a nice job illustrating how this tragedy led to a major cleanup of the beef industry. Before, consumers were seen as responsible for cooking dangerous pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 out of their burgers. USDA ultimately threw down the gauntlet and basically said, ‘Nope, this bug is now illegal in beef.’ The industry fought back and lost. Outbreaks tied to beef are now pretty rare compared to other commodities, and it’s seen as one of the great food-regulatory success stories. 

The rest of the burger: As Mansour Samadpour, president and CEO of IEH Laboratories, a major food safety lab, explains in the film, beef is no longer the riskiest part of a hamburger – it’s the fresh toppings like lettuce, tomato and onion. From there, ‘Poisoned’ offers a particularly searing indictment of leafy greens, which are constantly tied to E. coli outbreaks, some of them deadly. At one point USDA’s former head of food safety, Mindy Brashears, admits she doesn’t eat romaine lettuce. The film gets into one of the biggest issues: The proximity of leafy-green growing fields to livestock operations. (E. coli O157:H7 usually comes from cattle feces, I’m sorry to report.) The leafy green industry’s own self-regulatory food safety effort has surely helped prevent some problems, but it hasn’t stopped the outbreaks.

A huge hole: The movie is missing any real discussion of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a massive update to food safety law passed by Congress in late 2010 after a string of bad outbreaks. FSMA was supposed to prevent a lot of the problems we still have today (outside of meat, which is regulated by USDA) – so it was bizarre the film overlooked this. The filmmakers could have asked: Why are we still seeing outbreaks even after this law? Are fewer people getting sick now? If not, why? Did Congress fully fund this effort? (No, it didn’t.

Speaking of leafy greens, the filmmakers completely let the FDA off the hook. Congress directed the agency back in 2011 to create water standards to help prevent contamination of fresh produce – but it’s taken the agency more than a decade to get this done. I chronicled this failure for Politico (see Chapter 2). It’s been 12 years and the agency’s latest iteration of its water standards still need to be finalized.

Poultry contamination: The other product that’s highlighted as risky throughout the film is chicken. 

In the U.S., it’s legal for raw poultry products to contain pathogenic Salmonella, even if it’s drug resistant. The filmmakers tested 150 samples of chicken and found 17 percent were contaminated. Consumer advocates have been pressing hard on USDA to take a harder line on Salmonella – similar to what USDA has done on E. coli O157:H7 – but so far USDA has opted for a more limited approach. Last year, the agency announced it was seeking to make the pathogen illegal in certain breaded chicken products. The poultry portions of the film will outrage consumers, but I give Perdue a lot of credit for giving the film crew access to their facilities – consumers should be able to see behind the curtain. 

Fact-based POV: These types of films often oversimplify things, lack key context or just get things plain wrong. There is no question ‘Poisoned’ has a strong point of view – that U.S. food safety needs a major overhaul – but it gets the basic facts right. I understand why some food industry leaders would hate the tone of it – it’s horrifying to hear the stories of sick or dying children – but the truth is that these incidents still happen regularly and just about every case is preventable.

A common complaint: Beyond some folks disliking the movie’s overall tone, several of my sources found it unfair that Sandra Eskin, deputy undersecretary for food safety at USDA, was portrayed as a sort of a bureaucratic apologist for highlighting the limits of USDA’s authority on food safety. The big issue here is not everyone agrees about where these lines are. Still, Eskin is well-respected by consumer advocates, in part because she’s spent much of her career in the trenches with them. In her previous role as head of food safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts, Eskin played an outsized role in convincing Congress to pass FSMA, the biggest update to food safety law in a century.

Open secrets: Virtually all of the revelations in this film are not only not a secret, they are well known in the food industry and to consumer advocates, but not to most consumers. As I’ve written so many times, there’s a huge gap between what consumers think the government does for food safety oversight, and what the government actually does. 

A dose of nuance: I appreciated that the movie asked, albeit briefly, why all these outbreaks keep happening – is it that companies want to sicken their customers? Almost always the answer is no. (Aside from a few egregious actors, who are increasingly likely to face prison time.) It’s more that the industry just isn’t going far enough to prevent these repeated problems. And there’s plenty of blame to go around, from food makers and retailers to federal agencies, and also very much Congress, which tends to only pay attention to this stuff when something truly catastrophic happens. 

Thoughts? If you’ve watched the film, I’d love to know what you thought. Tell me: helena@foodfix.co


Regulators urged to include EBT in financial protection regs

Several anti-hunger and anti-poverty groups are urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to cover Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) accounts – the mode of payment for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other government aid programs – under forthcoming rulemaking aimed at protecting consumer access to financial data.

Access to financial data is a big deal for many reasons, but one particularly relevant one for SNAP is that third-party apps like Providers – made by tech company Propel – are used by a large portion of SNAP households to access their balances. Participants can also manage WIC and other benefits programs in one place – adding ease to government programs that are often cumbersome to navigate.

EBT on back burner? CFPB Director Rohit Chopra told lawmakers in June that while protecting EBT accounts is important, the agency needs to engage with USDA to better understand any technical issues. Chopra also said more rulemaking would be coming, which seemed to suggest EBT might be handled later. 

“We are disappointed at the prospect that consumers who use EBT accounts would need to wait for a separate, future rulemaking process to receive these equal rights and protections,” the groups wrote. “Consumers with low incomes need these protections now, and delaying implementation will only lead to prolonged financial strain and inequity. Excluding EBT accounts from the personal financial data rights and associated consumer protections, or delaying the population’s coverage to a future rulemaking, would reinforce a two tier financial services system.”

SNAP discount: Speaking of government benefits, if you participate in SNAP, WIC or other nutrition programs and would like to get Food Fix twice a week to track these policy areas, shoot me a note and I’ll comp you a subscription: helena@foodfix.co


Key anti-hunger group opposes Booker-Rubio SNAP bill

The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), a major anti-hunger advocacy group in Washington, announced on Thursday that it “strongly opposes” a new bill by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to shed light on what foods SNAP households are buying. 

ICYMI, I broke down what this legislation does in a newsletter a few weeks ago – and you all had lots of thoughts about it! The legislation doesn’t limit any purchases within SNAP, but many anti-hunger groups see it as a slippery slope to future restrictions. 


What I’m reading

Instacart now accepting SNAP benefits for online shopping in all 50 states (USA Today). “Instacart announced Thursday that those on food stamps will be able to purchase groceries online now in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Instacart becomes the first grocery marketplace to accept electronic benefit transfers for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP,” reports Doc Louallen. “Online grocery shopping is helpful for low-income families receiving SNAP benefits for multiple reasons. It saves time and money, helps with meal planning, and avoids in-store stigma. A study by the University of Kentucky found that shoppers from these households buy more fruits and vegetables without increasing expenses, another benefit of shopping online.”

Novo Nordisk’s hiring spree continues (Politico). “Novo Nordisk, the drugmaker behind weight loss medications Ozempic and Wegovy, has hired its third new lobbying firm in as many months as the company pushes lawmakers to make the blockbuster drugs eligible for coverage under Medicare,” reports Caitlin Oprysko over at Politico Influence. “The lobbying ramp up came weeks before a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would pave the way for drugs like Novo Nordisk’s to expand Medicare coverage for obesity treatments. Novo Nordisk is backing the bill, according to its sponsors, along with several medical trade groups, organizations like Weight Watchers and YMCA and Eli Lilly, whose own weight loss drug is awaiting approval and which added new lobbyists in January.”

Total participation in WIC increased in fiscal year 2022, first rise in more than a decade (USDA). “Total participation in WIC increased for the first time in more than a decade in fiscal year (FY) 2022,” per the USDA Economic Research Service. “Participation averaged 6.26 million people a month, up from 6.24 million a month in FY 2021. This was the first increase in overall participation since the record high 9.18 million in FY 2010 and resulted from increased numbers of women and children participants. Women participants increased by 1.5 percent in FY 2022 after declining for the previous 12 fiscal years, whereas infant participants continued to decline. Declines in the number of births in the United States, beginning in 2008, may be a factor in drops in infant participation. Child participation increased in FY 2022 for the second consecutive fiscal year.”

Food recovery startup Mill finds a new home for US kitchen scraps (Bloomberg). “Americans tossed more than 44 million tons of food into their home garbages in 2021, according to the nonprofit ReFED, making the residential sector responsible for nearly half of all food waste in the US. Now, a startup selling a stylish bin that doubles as a food dehydrator and pulverizer is close to securing a new life for food scraps,” reports Deena Shanker. “Earlier this month, an Association of American Feed Control Officials committee voted unanimously to approve a definition for ‘dried recovered household food’ as an ingredient in animal feed. The decision came with a safety stamp of approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); after two more procedural votes, the ingredient can come to market.”


Get more from Food Fix each week

Become a paid subscriber to unlock access to two newsletters each week, packed with insights and analysis on food happenings in Washington and beyond. You’ll also get access to the full Food Fix archive – a great way to get smart on all things food policy.

Get the Friday newsletter: If someone forwarded you this email, sign yourself up for the free Friday edition

You can also follow Food Fix on Twitter and LinkedIn.

And now, Food Fix is off for the rest of August – see you in September!