Friday, October 12, 2007

That's why we call it raw, folks...

The continued revelations of food contamination problems has created an impression for many that our food is suddenly unsafe. Certainly, these incidents could have been prevented, but I think there is much more happening here.
ConAgra Foods on Wednesday asked stores to stop selling pot pies linked to a salmonella outbreak, although the company and the Department of Agriculture defended their decision not to immediately recall the product.

ConAgra asked stores nationwide to pull the Banquet and generic brand chicken and turkey pot pies after two East Coast grocery chains made their own choice to remove the product from their shelves.

The pot pies made by ConAgra have been linked to at least 139 cases of salmonella in 30 states. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 20 people have been hospitalized, but so far no deaths have been linked to the pot pies. [More]

Given the seemingly continuous revelations of food contamination and endless recalls, it would be easy to magnify these problems into an epidemic. And certainly the media would be drawn to stories of "unfair" deaths, especially when the victims are likely to be the very young and the very old.

But it could be less dramatic than that. To begin with almost all food contamination occurs in the kitchen - or at least could be circumvented by actions like clean counters and thorough cooking.
The vast majority of reported cases of foodborne illness occur as individual or sporadic cases. The origin of most sporadic cases is undetermined. In the United States, where people eat outside the home frequently, most outbreaks (58%) originate from commercial food facilities (2004 FoodNet data). An outbreak is defined as occurring when two or more people experience similar illness after consuming food from a common source.

Often, a combination of events contributes to an outbreak, for example, food might be left at room temperature for many hours, allowing bacteria to multiply which is compounded by inadequate cooking which results in a failure to kill the dangerously elevated bacterial levels. [More]

Even with the rising concern, the 5000 annual deaths from food-borne contamination is barely a blip. In fact, it falls under the "all other deaths" category, I guess, because you can't find it easily in CDC statistics. I do not dismiss it, but we need to keep it in perspective.

My feeling is the decline in food preparation skills - specifically undercooking meat, food storage, and not washing produce thoroughly - has placed a larger and perhaps unrealistic burden on food purity at the farm/factory level. Nor will organic provide any significant improvement. Our food is not more dangerous, we are simply incapable of modest food preparation hygiene.

At the same time, longevity raises the portion of our population at risk because of weakened immune systems, which occurs naturally with age. Hence we read too many stories of very young and elderly victims of food poisoning.

I support vigorous efforts to improve food processing in the US, but the best bang for our buck would be better food management skills in our kitchens at home and in restaurants.


Jerio said...

Well said (written), John! I am consistently amazed (and disappointed) that in all these news stories about recalled food items the media never gets around to including the fact that if people would just cook/handle their food correctly, the bacteria would be killed and no one would get sick. I understand why the companies issuing the recalls can't say that, but I sure wish the media would start interviewing some food safety folks who would point out that little fact.

Anonymous said...

OK, OK, so an annual death rate of 5000 due to food borne illness doesn't amount to much, unless it's your child or your grandmother.

And so we're supposed to understand why food industry continues blame the consumer for not properly cooking their product that, oh by the way, happens to be contaminated with Salmonella or E. coli? Nothing is 100% safe but to blame the unfortunate person who followed the box label directions for cooking the chicken pot pie in the microwave and is now barfing his/her guts out because it didn't reach 165 F in the center of the pie.

Maybe we need more education about food safety and proper handling of raw poultry and meat products. But there's no excuse for processed foods.

ConAgra's self righteousness will cost them. Just ask Bill Marler of Marler Clark.

John Phipps said...


You are quite correct in stating ConAgra will pay. Our litigation system is world-famous. And I am not cavalier about the tragedy of anyone's loss.

But Jan has convinced me that we are responsible for the food we eat. Our assumption is everything we bring home could be contaminated. Her reasoning is to rely on:
1) Healthy immune systems in healthy bodies. There is a reason why God invented diarrhea.
2) Investing real dollars in a dedicated food preparer (formerly called a homemaker) who maintains a clean kitchen and sanitary practices.
3) Doing our own cooking.

In our rush to save time we put ourselves at risk and for those who want to rely on others to prepare what they eat, I support their right to choose, but do not choose to pay for it, nor mandate unworkable standards.

I don't blame prepared food makers, but then I don't buy their products either.

Jan and I have made a choice to make food a priority higher than extra income she might have earned. (Actually, her solution was to get me another job). This is our answer, and I do not offer it as THE answer.

Nonetheless, I don't it has much to offer in the way of enhancing daily life.

Being libertarian means blaming myself for my griefs, if any blame is needs to be allocated.