Friday, July 18, 2008

Over the reaction

Whew - The FDA announced today that all tomatoes are safe to eat! Yeah! We can all go back to enjoying one of the most healthy and widely distributed foods on the planet. Careful now - the FDA did not announce that the Salmonella outbreak was over - or that the source was discovered - just that tomatoes are OK.

In all 1220 people got sick and 224 were hospitalized - there were no reported deaths.

In some ways we are a safety obsessed society. We throw up our arms about food safety when 1200 people get sick from eating fresh veggies (or fruits) and complain that the FDA is not doing enough to ensure the safety of our food supply!!! If it were ever discovered where the contamination took place, you can be sure that the unfortunate farmer, harvester, wholesaler, distributor, handler, and retailer would be promptly sued by a bevy of lawyers all claiming that if we do not "punish" the "wrongdoer" these incidents will continue. (Reality check here - salmonella is a naturally occurring organism. There is no way to keep it completely out of the food supply.)

Let's examine the science just a bit closer - Salmonella is a bacterium that is found in many places in the environment. It is extremely common in reptiles (think pet turtles and lizards) and in poultry. In fact - it is probably normal for them to carry salmonella; just like we carry the much maligned E. coli. There are several strains of salmonella, but most cause a mild to severe diarrhea-like illness. If you are a generally healthy person, chances are that you will not even know you have been infected. Most people who ingest Salmonella have a case of the runs that lasts a few days - then their immune systems reject the organisms and they return to healthy life. Only the very young, very old, and the immunocompromised actually get sick enough to go to the doctor - even then, very few get antibiotics! Salmonella infections generally resolve on their own, without drugs.

So why all the fuss?

My take - I think we are a culture obsessed with placing blame on things that are out of our control so we do not have to take responsibility for the things we can control. If we divert enough attention to peripheral and relatively minor issues like salmonella, then we can ignore the real killers of our time. Salmonella is an easy whipping boy (bug) it takes little political will to be against it - everybody's against it.

I often wonder, if tobacco came up before the FDA would they approve it for use in humans? No - obviously not. And yet it is unquestionably a drug, and under their purview. Should the FDA monitor portion size at fast food restaurants? Is there any reason that the average person should ingest 2000+ calories at a single meal? (I realize there are a few exceptions, people doing hard physical labor and the people only eating one meal a day.) Should there be weekly limits on the amount of alcohol that a person can purchase? Stricter laws against being drunk? We certainly know that tobacco, excess food and alcohol can kill people more quickly that poor little salmonella - but we do little to stop them beyond public service announcements.

What if the FDA announced that they were going to stop monitoring food safety and just encourage consumers to carefully wash and cook their food before eating it? While you would probably see a slight increase in infections, it would still be a more effective approach (in terms of illness and death) than PSAs on overeating, tobacco, and alcohol.


::athada:: said...

"Food security" depends on who you're talking to... those in agri"business" or those peddling local, human-scale food.

FYI - here's a post from a friend about neural development and the age of military service(double click it)

::athada:: said...


Burton Webb said...

In this context food security refers to the general absence of disease producing microbes in food.

In other contexts food security could be access - a person has food security if they can get adequate food at an affordable price. Or even the persistence of subsidy... think agribusiness here.

Human scale food is an interesting concept, but I am not completely sure how feasible it is in an increasingly urban world. Food production, at present, operates on an efficiency of scale. Sometimes that means agribus, sometimes it means local. Again, perhaps a balance is important.

In general, I favor local sustainable food. But I question whether we can really grow enough food in this way. Have you tried the experiment? Can you live entirely on local food - all year? Even if you can; can everyone? Do we have enough local production to make that feasible? Maybe the answer is a resounding yes - I have not personally researched this one.

Interesting post by your friend, I heard something similar on NPR when the study came out. I need to get the original paper to make make a comment. I have a feeling that something was quoted out of context.

::athada:: said...

I think you're right about food. We won't be "going back" but a few of our methods might take the form of more dated methods... with modern twists (I'm thinking of Joel Salatin's farm that was highlighted in "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

But even if a balance would be economically and ecologically preferable, we have a lot of local food to rebuild to get to that point. We're nowhere close. Done properly, the "human-scale" food can be economically competitive for a large section of the population. There is also the negative externalities of industrial food production to consider (which the local foodies incorporate in their food costs, to varying degrees).