What?! Another Huge Food Recall? Why?

by Jeff Berkowitz on May 17, 2010 · 3 comments

in Culinary Philosopher News

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Is anything safe to eat? Why are there so many massive food recalls? Are food producing companies poisoning us? Is there anything we can do to provide our families with safe food? Over the last decade there have been several alarmingly large food recalls with hundreds or even thousands of cases of food born illness. Why is this happening all of a sudden?

The first thing I would like to say is that this is not a new phenomenon. In the early part of the 20th century, dinner diarrhea was the leading cause of death. It is assumed now that poor sanitation was the cause of that and medical technology could not keep people alive once they caught something that caused diarrhea. Have you ever heard or said yourself, “I must have had a stomach flu?” My understanding is that while influenza can cause intestinal symptoms, the short lived 24-48 hour illness that consists of fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps… is usually some form of food borne illness. That is to say that the pathogens that caused this illness were ingested with your food. These illnesses can range from relatively mild lasting a day or two to quite severe even causing death. Many or most food borne pathogens (disease causing organisms) can take from 4 hours to 72 hours to make you sick. This makes it very difficult to determine exactly what got you sick. Most people assume that it was the last thing they ate before they started having symptoms, but that is often not the case. Further, people often assume that meals consumed away from home are usually to blame to which I say often the food service workers are well trained and diligent with equipment that allows for the safe delivery of food where as the home cook has neither training or proper equipment. So let’s talk about the recalls…

On one hand, the recalls make us feel that the whole food supply is unsafe which makes us feel very vulnerable. Another way of looking at it is that our food production system has identified a problem and alerted consumers of that problem. The FDA mandates that all food produced and packaged for human consumption be traceable all the way through the delivery system to retailers. Pretty impressive. The recalls are evidence that there is a system in place to keep dangerous food out of the supply chain. One might ask, “Why is dangerous food anywhere near the supply chain?”

In order to feed 300 million people in this country and over 6 billion people around the world, each company or farm that produces food does so on the scale of millions of units. The shear scale of this endeavor makes it more likely that any problem that appears will be a big one. Further, many of our farming practices encourage certain bacteria to grow, for example, feeding our cattle grain has allowed E. coli H0157 to prosper. When beef is recalled this is usually the reason (H0157). It can kill very young people, very old people, and people with weakened immune systems. The funny thing is that beef contaminated with this bacteria would be safe to eat if cooked fully (to temperature over 155°F). Chicken very often has salmonella in its digestive tract so when you crowd them into a limited space some of them will get infected. During processing if the viscera are ruptured the bacteria can contaminate everything being processed. This would not happen if chicken were slaughtered and processed at a time like in the old days, but that is no way to feed 300 million people. Once again cooking the chicken to 165°F makes it completely safe.

Produce is another commonly recalled product; peanuts; spinach; lettuce mix; spinach; tomatoes; jalapenos, and green onions just to name a few recent recalls. Very often the source of the contamination is water used in irrigation. Contaminated produce is possibly more of a threat to the public because so much of it is consumed raw. The only thing you can do with contaminated produce is cook it which does not make a nice salad. It would be nearly impossible to wash it sufficiently to remove bacteria. None the less, produce should always be washed to remove other contaminants. Refrigeration also helps to slow the growth of microorganisms. Holding all food products at the proper temperature helps to make all foods safe.

As I stated earlier, many cases of food borne illness are caused by cross contamination. One should assume that food animals are not safe unless cooked. Cross contamination occurs when a food item that does not get cooked comes in contact with a contaminated item. Thus contaminating it as well.  For that reason it is wise to have separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat/poultry and to wash these items immediately after use. Air drying is preferred to towel drying so you don’t contaminate the towel and spread harmful bacteria to everything you just washed.

The most obvious solution is to eliminate the contamination at its source. For meat and poultry that would mean feeding them their natural diet and exercising unheard of control in their processing and handling; produce would need certifiable water supplies since most bacterial contaminants come from irrigation water or cross contamination. And then every person that handles food, at home or professionally, needs to handle food properly. There is one more thing we can do to stay healthy. We must strengthen our immune systems.The human digestive system is designed to fight off invaders when functioning properly. To do this you must eat a healthy diet with sufficient nutrients and use probiotics. There are a lot of friendly bacteria that would love to populate our guts excluding pathogens and aiding in our digestion. Limit the use of antacids. Our stomachs have a low PH so that the acid will help to break apart the food we eat and coincidentally most pathogens hate an acid environment.

Too often it seems that the pursuit of cheap food has yielded exactly that: “cheap food” which is full of pesticides, pathogens and little or no nutritional value. We have fished many species of fish and shellfish nearly to extinction and still our main concern is that the price be low. We must be willing to pay for what we expect to receive. If we put forth thought, effort, oversight, and some common sense, we can produce enough food for everyone in the world. We must be willing to pay a fair price for it which may be more than we currently pay, but ultimately, we will be better off.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Yvonne May 18, 2010 at 11:29 am

Wonderfully informative. Thanks for the information, and all the tips on how to better protect ourselves from food borne illnesses. I especially like the cutting board tip. Thanx.
Yvonne

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2 Liudas May 17, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Well that was a very interesting article.

TheTopFitness last blog: http://www.thetopfitness.com/?p=63

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3 Shane May 17, 2010 at 10:25 am

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