by Marion Nestle
Oct 6 2009

The high human cost of unsafe food

I think we need a whole lot more public outrage about unsafe food.  Maybe the recent front-page articles in the Washington Post and New York Times will do the trick.

Both tell tragic stories of women who developed hemolytic uremia syndrome in response to eating a food contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.  Both reveal the appalling physical and monetary cost of these illnesses.  Recall: we also do not have an effective and affordable health care system.

To me, the most chilling part of the Times investigation had to do with the lack of testing for dangerous pathogens.  No meat packing company wants to test.  Why not?  They know the animals coming into the plant are contaminated.  They know that tests would come up positive.  They know that if they find pathogens, they have to recall the meat.

It’s obvious why meat is contaminated.  The making of hamburger is enough to put anyone off, as the letters to today’s Times attest.  In my book, Safe Food, I discuss a study demonstrating that one pound of commercial hamburger could contain meat from more than 400 cattle.  The Times’ article takes such facts to a personal level.  The 22-year-old woman who ate the tainted hamburger is paralyzed from the waist down and likely never to walk again.

Read these articles and you will understand that meat companies will not do what is needed to produce safe food unless they are forced to.

And it’s not just hamburger that causes problems.  Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a new report out on the ten foods that cause the most cases of foodborne illness in America.  Hamburger isn’t even on the list.  Instead, it’s leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries.  [Addendum October 9: for a critical analysis, see the Perishable Pundit’s comments on the study].

So how come Congress isn’t forcing all food producers to produce safe food?  Could it be because there isn’t enough public outrage to counteract industry pressures and make Congress act?

Put me out of business big box WebBill Marler, who represents both of the victims profiled in those articles, is begging Congress to put him out of business.

His message is clear: get busy and pass meaningful food safety legislation, right now, before it is too late.

I’m hoping these articles and the CSPI report will be seen by senatorial staff who will urge their bosses to support the House bill passed last spring.

Maybe we need hundreds of thousands of people to deluge Congress with appeals to act on food safety, now.

You would like to do this but don’t know how?  Easy.  Find your own representatives online on the House site and your Senator just as easily.  The e-mail addresses are right there waiting to be used.

Addendum: Here’s one rep who is on the job: Rosa de Lauro (Dem-CT).  Take a look at her statement about the Times article.  Where, she wonders, was the USDA while all this was going on?   Doing lots of good things, according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

No priority is greater to me than food safety and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and protect the American people from preventable illnesses. We will continue to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli 0157:H7.

Suggestion: enforce HACCP!

  • How would a bill like this effect the farmers that I buy from at the Farmers Market? Or my CSA? I’m worried that I might want it both ways — the big producers need to be forced to implement food safety checks, but if it puts my favorite local farmers out of business, I will be losing something that I value.

  • Anthro

    I would echo Joy’s question and asked something similar at the Feedback section. How do I know if my small, independent producer is producing safe food? Is it enough to know that the operation is small and can I therefore assume that there is less chance of contamination to begin with?

    As to outrage, I have way too much already just with healthcare, unending wars, torture, poverty, prisons, climate change. I call my representatives all the time and only get bored sounding aides who thank me for my call in that same way that a low paid checker says, “have a nice day”. All my reps are moderate to liberal democrats who vote pretty much in line with my views and there isn’t much I can do about the rest–they don’t even answer letters. I think the Times story will help more than my individual effort in this case. Also, new people running these agencies should help as well, although it would be good to separate food safety from agricultural interests.

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  • Carrie R.

    Regarding the CSPI “Top 10” report, it only includes foods regulated by the FDA. Since ground beef is regulated by USDA, it wouldn’t make this list. The conclusion at the end of the report gives some rationale as to why CSPI chose to break it out this way: to spur Congress to take action on bills that would impact FDA’s regulatory authority. Even though they mention the types of food FDA regulates, I think CSPI should have been more conspicuous about the types of foods *not* included.

  • Marion – Ill send you a t-shirt.

  • Cindy

    Joy, I think that every food producer, small and large, should have to follow safe production regulations. It’s perfectly possible to craft laws protecting small producers, but they certainly should not be exempt,

  • susanne

    “perfectly possible” does not mean it will happen, especially when meat producers and packers are funding congress.

    check out “Everything I want to do is Illegal” by joel salatin.

    it is one thing to say everyone should produce food safely. it is completely another thing when it comes to writing legislation. things get written in such as separate bathrooms and locker rooms and washrooms for male and female employees. what kind of small farm can afford to build such facilities? some small farms do not even have “employees.” just their own family members. these are the kinds of things that are meaningless to a huge meat-packing facility but that will put a small farm out of business.

  • Hi Marion,
    I read that CSPI report too, and I had issues with it. They cited 48,000 cases of illness from those ten foods, which sounds like a really big number until you get deep into the report and find out that’s an aggregate number over a 17 year period.

    That works out to only ~2800 cases per year (of just illness, mind you, not fatalities) in a country with 300 million people. For comparison, we have 37,000 to 41,000 auto fatalities per year in the USA. And those are fatalities, not “auto illnesses.”

    I know it’s a headline grabber to claim death from a pint of ice cream, but this study really the crisis the CSPI makes it out to be?

    Casual Kitchen

  • Christine Irizarry

    Dr. Nestle, I listened to Tom Ashbrook’s Oct. 7 On Point show on the New York Times article. Shocking. One hour wasn’t enough to cover all the issues, and the issue of the school lunch program receiving this meat (possibly containing “irradiated fecal matter,” to quote a participant whose name I didn’t catch unfortunately) didn’t even come up. Thanks for!

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  • Rosana

    As an european I was amazed when I saw how a vital matter such as food safety was treated in the US. It’s unbelievable that a country like yours doesn’t pay much attention to the safety of the food produced in its factories.

    Maybe unsafe food doesn’t cause as many illnesses and fatalities as other things do, but having a small number of cases doesn’t mean that no action is needed. If you have ever visited factories in the US, or if you have ever watched the program Unwrapped (Food Network) you know that most of production facilities are obviously unsafe and potentially dangerous.

    And on a personal note, I have to say that being a healthy person and with no allergies known, I’ve felt ill from food in the US a lot more often than in any other developed country I’ve visited in my life.

    A good HACCP system in place, and quality controls from strictly regulated organizations (either public or private organizations but deeply regulated) may have a great impact on food’s safety. Quality certifications such as BRC and IFS force manufacturers to implement good working practices along with very hard and fast rules on food safety. Complying with all health regulations may be expensive for some producers but it’s still needed for the common good.

    From my humble point of view, the EU regulations on food safety, food labeling, etc, could (and maybe should) be a reference. And I agree with those who say that regulations should be flexible enough to acommodate small producers realities.

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