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,...

Multifarious Mishaps

Bill Marler believes there’s no single solution to the food-safety issue, because there’s no single cause. Is it a lack of good sanitation practices by the people who grow and pack your food? Yes. Is it a complex supply chain that creates numerous opportunities for bacteria to invade? Yes. (Even if slaughterhouses are pristine, can you trust the guy working the meat counter at the supermarket?) Is it, as the manufacturers of our foodstuffs would like to have us believe, our fault for improper handling of our dinner? Once in a while, perhaps, but usually not. Still, in Marler’s experience, one factor reigns supreme. “Ultimately, the problem with our food system is that it’s so industrialized, so centralized, that any little problem becomes amplified.”

Consider the recall of 3,916 products containing peanuts sourced from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which, before the largest food recall in American history forced it out of business last February, supplied peanuts to such food giants as Keebler and Trader Joe’s. It wasn’t just the nuts that had to be avoided; it was anything that contained even traces of the nuts. No surprise, then, that the salmonella-contaminated peanuts from PCA found their way to 46 states, sickening 714 (or, if Marler’s one-in-40 figure is correct, 28,560) and possibly contributing to nine deaths. The recall ultimately cost American peanut farmers and food manufacturers more than $1 billion in lost production and sales, as products were yanked from supermarket shelves and crops were allowed to wither in the fields. “This is going to sound kind of cold, but let’s forget about the human toll for a minute,” says Marler. “Wouldn’t you think that merely from an economic perspective, we’d be taking this more seriously?”

Not everyone agrees that we’re not taking it seriously. “One of the reasons Americans are seeing so much coverage recently is because we are trying to get out in front of these problems,” says David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA. “We are finding more because our monitoring is more sophisticated and our messages to the public are broad because the distribution system is so complex. We have to cast a wide net.” A recent study on food safety by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows why: only five of 40 products sampled could be traced to their raw-ingredient origins. The supply chain is simply too complex to know, with certainty, the genesis of most of our food, and this begets one of the principal hurdles in holding processors accountable.

“The bottom line is that if you’re the CEO of a food company and you’re a betting person, you know the odds of an outbreak ever being conclusively linked to your company are minuscule,” says Marler. Too, the varying incubation periods of foodborne illnesses make it extremely difficult to pinpoint a particular meal. Think about how many different items you’ve eaten in the past two weeks, and then consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of ingredients, all funneling down the food-supply highway to your dinner table. Pinpointing which one of those is responsible for your upset tummy is needle-in-the-haystack work.

Scott Donnelly agrees with Marler that some companies simply play the favorable odds: “The food industry runs on incredibly low margins. For most of these companies, it’s a struggle just to survive. Sure, some of them are truly committed to quality and they’re willing to do what it takes to keep their product safe. Others want to do the right thing, but may be constrained by what they can do, especially by the difficulty of properly training temporary workers. But still other manufacturers are saying, ‘Well, yeah, salmonella makes people sick, but most of them aren’t going to die.’ They’re either ignorant or unscrupulous, and I’m not sure which is worse.”

Next: Regulation Situation »

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