How Safe is Our Food?

Stephen DeAngelis

June 15, 2011

The recent Escherichia coli (or E. coli) outbreak that killed dozens and sickened thousands of people in Europe has once again stirred debate about the safety of the world’s food supply and the logistics system that moves it. The thing that is worrying scientists and medical personnel the most is the fact that this latest E. coli outbreak involves a previously unknown and extremely toxic version of the bacteria. The deadly bug proved “resistant to eight classes of antibiotics, including penicillin, streptomycin and sulfonamide.” [“Gene Probe Yields E. coli Clue,” by Gautum Naik and Laura Stevens, The Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011]

 

The timing of the outbreak was fortuitous for author Jeff Benedict who had just released a book entitled Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat. In an op-ed published following the European outbreak, Benedict wrote, “It would be a big mistake to assume that all is well when it comes to the American food supply and E. coli.” [“The Next Outbreak,” The New York Times, 4 June 2011] He continues:

“On the contrary, the precarious situation we are in today recalls our mind-set just before the [the infamous 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak that sickened 750 children and killed four]: naïve complacency. When news of the outbreak hit, Americans were stunned to discover that one of our most popular foods — hamburgers — could have a lethal pathogen. Officials responded quickly, with some of the biggest changes in food policy since the fallout after the Upton Sinclair novel ‘The Jungle’ appeared. The federally mandated internal cooking temperature for meat was raised to 155 degrees, which scientists deemed was sufficient to kill E. coli. Cooking and handling instructions were applied to meat and poultry sold in grocery stores, a practice we take for granted today. And the strain of E. coli responsible for the outbreak was declared an adulterant by the Department of Agriculture in 1994, paving the way for mandatory reporting laws and testing procedures at all facilities that produce meat. The 1993 outbreak introduced the world to E. coli. But the recent outbreak in Europe involves a new strain of the bacteria, one that we know little about.”

Benedict is right about one thing — complacency is always the enemy of security. Most of us are aware of the remarkable evolutionary powers of bacteria and viruses. Drug companies are always racing to find new medicines that work on new strains. Benedict, however, worries that the government isn’t keeping pace by passing and funding new regulations that would make the food chain safer. He explains:

“There are several other [E. coli] strains afoot; in the United States federal officials have identified six additional strains in our food supply. Referred to by food safety experts as the Big Six or, more technically, non-O157s, these strains have already been associated with food-borne illness outbreaks involving lettuce, raw ground beef, berries and other foods. These strains are a food-safety disaster waiting to happen. As far back as 2007, the government considered routine testing for the presence of these pathogens in certain raw beef products. But nothing has been done: inspectors don’t test for them, and the public isn’t aware of how they are different from earlier strains. Nor have they been declared adulterants in food, which would lead to stricter quality and reporting standards. Just like in the early 1990s, few people knew about the bacteria’s presence in meat. Doctors and hospitals in most states weren’t required to report cases of E. coli poisoning. Nor did federal regulators or those in the meat industry test for the presence of E. coli in meat products. If the government doesn’t act fast, we could repeat history.”

How serious is the problem? According to Benedict, “a report by the Government Accountability Office this year estimated that these new strains cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually in the United States.” Benedict has tried to protect his family by revolutionizing the way he eats. In an email he sent out, Benedict writes:

“We now grow much of our food on the organic farm we created. We raise our own chickens. What we don’t produce we buy from local organic farmers. We eat in season. My children haven’t tasted fast food in two years and we seldom visit grocery stores.”

As we now know, going organic doesn’t protect you and your family. The below Wall Street Journal video confirms that the European E. coli outbreak can be traced to beansprouts that came from an organic farm near Hamburg, Germany.

 

Dr. Marc Siegel, a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, agrees with Benedict that “this strain of E. coli is not a microbe that can be taken lightly.” [“E. coli and the Fear Factor,” The Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011] Still, Siegel doesn’t believe we need to panic. He insists that “we must learn to control our fear and approach food poisoning rationally. … Fear is as much a pathogen as E. coli, and fear is far more infectious.” He also agrees with Anne Jolis, the Wall Street Journal writer featured in the video, that it would be helpful “to irradiate our produce, which neutralizes both harmful and harmless bacteria. Irradiation remains infrequent around the world, despite there being no evidence that the process introduces any risk to human health whatsoever.” To learn more about irradiation, read Matt Ridley’s column entitled “When Precaution Trumps Public Safety” [The Wall Street Journal, 11 June 2011].

 

Dr. Peter A. Coclanis, a professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agrees with Siegel that the public shouldn’t panic. He notes that “there are about 311.4 million people living in the U.S. today, and most of them eat (at least!) three meals a day.” In other words, “there are a billion ‘eating events’ every day in America, yet we rarely get sick.” [“Food Is Much Safer Than You Think,” The Wall Street Journal, 14 June 2011]. He continues:

“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. In our much maligned ‘industrial’ food regime, eight people a day, on average, die from ingesting ‘bad’ food—mostly the very old, the very young, and people with severely compromised immune systems. That’s about one out of every 39 million Americans. If there are roughly a billion eating events daily in the U.S., then there is one death for every 125 million of these events. And that’s not even considering daily non-meal ‘drinking’ events—every time we put ourselves at risk of ingesting tainted liquids between meals. If we included such events as well, the U.S. food and drink regime becomes safer still, particularly for those without severely compromised immune systems between the ages of, say, two and 75. These are the kinds of numbers that should inspire confidence in the safety of our food supply, not weaken knees.”

I don’t believe that Coclanis is trying to diminish the individual tragedy and heartache created by 3000 to 5000 annual deaths; he is just trying to put things in perspective. Obviously, it would be wonderful if the number of deaths could be reduced to zero. Realistically, that’s not going to happen. What we should find disturbing, according to supply chain analyst Steve Banker, is that “we’re really not improving the safety of our food supply.” [“Thoughts on Food Safety and Supply Chain Management,” Logistics Viewpoints, 16 May 2011] He continues:

“Statistics show that the number of food-borne illnesses and their severity have remained relatively constant over the years. ‘In the US, this translates into 76 million gastrointestinal illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, 5,000 deaths, and billions of dollars in costs.’ Despite scientific and technological advancements in so many areas, we’re really not improving the safety of our food supply. Compare that with car safety. Car crashes in the US killed about the same number of people in 1950 as in 2009 (about 33,000 and 34,000 people, respectively). Yet, the population of the US and the number of miles driven have increased significantly over that time period. … Why is it that dramatic safety improvements have been made in almost every area, such as the manufacturing floor, mining, and driving, but not in food safety? [A recent ARC report, “Food Safety: Are We Getting Better or Worse?’ (available to ARC clients only)], argues that global sourcing and rapid distribution are some of the reasons.”

Banker doesn’t argue that we should stop the global distribution of food or stop trying to get food onto store shelves in as fresh a state as possible. He does believe, however, that better regulation is needed. He concludes:

“I’m business oriented, so I recognize that companies need to make a profit and that regulation increases costs. But my view is that tracking and tracing using paper records is not sufficient. We need electronic tracking and product genealogy that extends across a ‘farm to fork’ supply chain. Near real-time visibility is important. I recently heard an off-the-record story from a software vendor that offers a multi-tenant global supply chain visibility solution. This vendor has a client that manufactures food additives in China, and one of their customers is one of the largest food companies in the world. The food company wanted to know how close the ships carrying their food additives to North America were coming to the radioactive fallout from the nuclear plant catastrophe in Japan. The food additive company was able to use near real-time and historical tracking information to show that the shipments were completely safe. Presumably, this meant the food company did not have to engage in costly tests for radioactivity once the shipments arrived in the US. In addition to improving food safety, food companies can use an end-to-end electronic track and trace system for a variety of purposes. These solutions could help to balance demand and supply, be part of anti-counterfeiting efforts, lead to improved asset tracking (think returnable pallets, leased ocean containers, or leased rail cars), and serve other purposes as well.”

As noted earlier, Benedict also believes that tougher regulation is required. He writes:

“The Department of Agriculture has worked with the meat and poultry industry to develop tests that can rapidly detect the Big Six strains. But one produce company conducting voluntary testing is hardly adequate. Nor is it sufficient for the government to simply develop tests that can detect additional strains of E. coli. All food manufacturers should be required to test for these new strains, and food safety regulators should inspect for them. In December, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, a landmark law that goes a long way to improving food safety in the United States through mandatory recalls, stricter inspections and better resources for tracking the sources of outbreaks. But so far nothing has happened because Congress hasn’t provided money for the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the law. The most important part of the law includes stronger regulations on food imports. Only 1 percent of them are now inspected. … We shouldn’t have to wonder if the food we are buying is safe. E. coli is a complicated, ever-evolving threat, and we can’t assume that measures put in place in 1993 are still sufficient. The Food Safety Modernization Act gives federal regulators the tools to bring E. coli monitoring and prevention up to date. Congress shouldn’t stand in the way.”

Although Coclanis is correct that, for the most part, our food is safe to eat, Benedict, Siegel, Ridley, and Banker all point out that there are things that can be done to make the food supply chain better. Hopefully, the European E. coli outbreak will reawaken politicians and consumers and prod them to move forward with the recommendations noted above. If that doesn’t happen, complacency, not E. coli, will be the cause of the next outbreak.