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.