With the source of the largest European E. coli outbreak in history now identified and the release of the CDC data on where food borne illnesses really come from, it’s time to stop and think, an almost completely lost luxury in our 24/7/365+ modern news cycle. Reporters know that the news cycle is a hungry beast that must be fed constantly or it will kill and eat you. That was true decades ago when daily newspapers were the primary source of information. It’s agonizingly true now that the Internet has handed us not-ink-stained wretches and a constantly ticking atomic clock where ‘breaking’ news is measured in split seconds instead of hours.
Which is the real reason why we heard more than we really wanted to know about Rep. Anthony Weiner’s ‘shortcomings.’ Gotta feed that beast; the public wants to know, even if it can best be described as prurient.
But back to the matter at hand. After watching the meat industry fight the E. coli battle for two long and painfully expensive decades, I was distressed when I first heard about Europe’s problems. “Another case of tainted meat,” I wondered? Forgive me for a little bit of schadenfreude – pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others – when I learned it was organic bean sprouts, not the weinerschnitzel, that was the ‘vector.’
But I have to be adult about this and feel for those that have long pushed for a vegetarian diet or, even better, an organic diet, as safer for people as well as the environment. They’ve been proven dramatically, and sadly wrong. Food mishandled, no matter what the source, can kill you.
But the bottom line of the CDC data is food is astoundingly safe. It doesn’t matter if it came from your friendly neighborhood family farmer working 160 acres by hand, or that behemoth mechanized ‘factory farm’ down the road working 10,000 acres and owned by an extended family with the assistance of the local branch of Wells Fargo. It doesn’t matter if Aunt Matilda assembled a nice tossed salad for the church social using greens from her garden or she bought it pre-bagged from Dole at Whole Foods. It doesn’t matter if that chunk of beef is grass-fed and organic from Red Buffalo Ranch or a feed lot down the line from a JBS harvesting facility. Your chances of getting a death sentence from your Sunday dinner is about on a par with winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning.
I’m amazed, given the complicated nature of the modern food chain and the lack of basic food handling practices by many in the public, that the CDC numbers were so small. What’s on your plate tonight is like almost everything else in your life – it might have been supplied by any of 10,000 resources. Most of them are run by honest and educated people who absolutely try to do the right thing every day; and a few of them are scoundrels, quick buck artists who need to be identified, tarred and feathered, and hounded out of business.
Peter Coclanis, writing about the European outbreak for the Wall Street Journal, was curious. ”—curiously—I haven't heard any of the critics calling for draconian regulations on organics, much less for the dismantling of this still small, and thus readily terminable, component of the food industry.”
Many of those critics, of course, demand immediate action against "industrial agriculture," "factory farms" and our "lax" regulatory regimes.
Coclanis gently pointed out that after the shell egg "epidemic" ended last year “with a whimper, not a bang—none of the critics bothered to point out that not one death resulted from it, that on balance the regulations in place worked well, and that the ‘industrial’ food system in the U.S. is actually very safe.”
I will part ways with him when he wrote, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one out of six Americans comes down with a food/water-borne illness every year, that 128,000 people get hospitalized from such illnesses, and that about 3,000 die annually because of something they ate or drank. While these numbers sound large, they aren't. Let's do the math.”
While I think most people would rather suffer an occasional bout of intestinal distress as a trade off for not having to plant, water, fertilize and harvest an uncertain crop or kill their own livestock for meat, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg claims to be doing, dying for the privilege is asking a bit too much.
Three thousand dead Americans is too many. Thousands more who will suffer from serious health impairments for the rest of their suddenly-shortened lives is too many. The numbers sound large and they are large
Using the same “do the math” logic to prove food borne illnesses are no big deal makes light of the European number. The most recent headline I found said “E. coli O104:H4 Death Toll Hits 37 with 3,335 Ill and 817 with HUS.” With a total population of over 850 million, just .000004% were stricken. The dead accounted for a paltry .000000044%. Hardly worth noticing, right? Except if one of those 3,335 was your son, daughter, mother or father. Worse, if you had to count one of those unlucky 37 death lottery winners as a close friend or relative.
It’s a matter of perspective. Taking the long view is a perfectly valid mathematical pursuit when you’re trying to objectively determine how well our food safety efforts are doing. It’s not a valid pursuit when you’re intimately involved with serious illness and death and we all are when it comes to the lives of those closest to us.
We have, indeed, achieved remarkable progress in identifying the sources of food borne illnesses and establishing the necessary hurdles to significantly reduce their occurrence – with the singular exception of that nasty Salmonella bug. I’ll dine tonight secure in the knowledge that my odds of avoiding some kind of intestinal distress are fantastic, never better.
I’ll also dine knowing that the work continues and much still has to be done to eliminate E. coli O157:H7 and its ugly stepsisters, Bacillus cereus, Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens, Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia, Hepatitis A, Listeria monocytogenes, norovirus, Salmonellosis, Staphylococcus, Shigella, Toxoplasma gondii, Vibrio and Yersiniosis that have haunted us from the day we humans ate our first meal. It’s a war that will never be done, but we will do better.
Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.