Is Your Supper Safe?

By Ben Hewitt, September/October 2009

With recent outbreaks of E. coli in beef and salmonella in peanuts, sitting down to dinner may seem hazardous to your health. Can it really be so bad? EatingWell investigates.

"I'm not one who believes that everything has to be refrigerated shortly after it has been served. Many time, we leave dinner out all night, and we have the next day. None of us has ever gotten sick as a result of this. We're European,...

Good Food Gone Bad

Beef. Peanuts. Spinach. Pistachios. Cheese. Alfalfa sprouts. Bad news—and bacteria—seem to be lurking in every corner of our cupboards and refrigerators. And these are just the recalls that have made national headlines. In fact, a quick visit to, a federal website, reveals an alarming array of recalls: cheese tainted with listeria, curry spice contaminated with salmonella, ground beef infected with E. coli. Maybe that’s why, in a recent survey conducted by the American Society for Quality, 73 percent of respondents expressed concern over our country’s food-safety record.

But should we all be concerned? According to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans suffer an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses every year, necessitating 325,000 hospitalizations and causing 5,000 deaths. Most experts agree that outbreaks are severely underreported. “For every one person counted, we’re probably missing nearly 40 others,” says Bill Marler, who describes himself as the “nation’s leading foodborne illness attorney.” This descriptor is probably fair: since 1993, when Marler represented victims of the nationwide E. coli outbreak that was traced to Jack-in-the-Box fast-food restaurants, the Seattle-based lawyer has secured over $500 million for his clients (and surely a pretty fair chunk for himself). “To be honest, I never thought I’d make a living out of this for this long. I assumed we’d catch on and fix the system. But even with all these outbreaks, nothing is structurally different. It’s like no one’s paying attention, except the people getting sick.”

Fortunately, most people who eat contaminated food don’t become seriously ill. But the same contaminant that causes a stomachache in a healthy adult can be devastating to the elderly, anyone whose immune system is comprised by a condition like cancer, and the young. Elizabeth Armstrong is the mother of two sweet-faced daughters. Ashley is five; Isabella is seven. They live in Fishers, Indiana, a town of 66,000 just north of Indianapolis. Three years ago, in late August, the family sat down to a raw spinach salad that would change their lives forever. The spinach the Armstrongs ate looked and tasted like spinach is supposed to look and taste. But it carried Escherichia coli O157:H7, a tubular-shaped bacterium known to cause kidney failure, particularly in young children. Ashley and Isabella were about to become two of the first cases associated with the 2006 E. coli outbreak that would eventually be traced back to a 50-acre farm in San Benito County, California, where it’s now believed that wild pigs tracked contaminated manure from a nearby ranch to the spinach field. Before the outbreak was contained, three people would die, 31 would suffer kidney failure and at least 204 people in 26 states would be sickened.

Within a week of eating that fateful salad, Isabella suffered a bout of diarrhea; as she began to recover, Ashley became sick. This time, there was blood in the stool. The Armstrongs didn’t know it yet, but their 2-year-old was in the early stages of hemolytic uremic syndrome: an interwoven mesh of blood platelets began clogging the latticework of capillaries in Ashley’s kidneys. A day later, she was hospitalized. Two days later, she started dialysis. Today, she survives on a severely restricted diet, six daily medications and weekly injections that coax her body into making red blood cells. In the next few years, likely before she becomes a teenager, she will require a kidney transplant.

“Buying food in this country is truly just an act of faith,” says Elizabeth Armstrong. “People are naïve if they think the government is going to keep them safe.” In a sense, Armstrong is right, and to understand why, you need to understand how the safety of our food is ensured. Or how it is not ensured.

Next: Who’s Responsible? »

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