Editor’s note: If you had a magic wand, how would you conjure up ways to make the food supply safe? We asked several people to consider the possibilities. Here is another response, from frequent Food Safety News contributor Cookson Beecher:
It was a blustery afternoon so when I heard a noise at the front door, I assumed it was just some branches blowing across the porch. But later when I opened the door, I discovered that UPS had delivered a package. Picking it up, I saw that it was addressed to me. As I carried it inside, I wondered what it could be since I hadn’t ordered anything.
Opening the package, I discovered a smooth white box with rounded edges inside. Something about it looked as though it contained something very valuable. I picked it up and examined it, but there were no clues on the outside of the box. With my curiosity mounting, I opened it up and there on top of a layer of soft batting was a beautiful label that said “Food Safety Magic Wand.” It was from a company called “Magic Wands Inc.”
Puzzled, I lifted up the batting, and there was the most beautiful magic wand I had ever seen — more beautiful even than any I’ve seen in a play or movie.
What made it especially beautiful was that it glittered on its own. No batteries needed, said the directions.
The best part of all, though, was that it had apps on it. One of them said “Education,” another said, “Prevention,” and another said “Legislation.”
I read the instructions and learned that all I had to do was push an app and do what it said. Because I was preparing a meal for a family gathering, I tucked the magic wand back into the box and put it away. “Tomorrow,” I told myself. “I’ll look at it tomorrow.”
The next day I pulled out the wand and pushed the “Education” app button. A voice floated up out of the wand and told me to go to the schools and educate the children about food safety. “Children are the best way to get information into the home,” it said.
I called the local school district and made an appointment. They lined me up to talk during a school assembly at a nearby middle school. When I got there, I found a large crowd of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who seemed more interested in not listening than in listening.
Swallowing hard, I started telling them true-life stories. About little Ashley Armstrong, 2, who became gravely ill with a severe kidney disease after eating some bagged fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. How she had to be hooked up to a machine 24 hours a day for 6 weeks to keep her kidneys working. And when she was finally able to return home she had to relearn how to walk and couldn’t run for the first couple of weeks. Her parents are worried because when she grows up, she will probably need to get a kidney transplant.
In that 2006 foodborne illness outbreak, which was traced to bagged Dole-brand fresh baby spinach, more than 205 people became ill and 5 people died.
About Stephanie Smith, a young woman who taught dancing to children, who became gravely ill more than 3 years ago with a severe kidney disease after she ate a hamburger patty contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. After spending many months in the hospital, some of them in a coma and close to death, she returned home but could no longer walk. She’s in a wheelchair now and wishes that things could go back to the way they were before she was food poisoned. “I lost my only passion for life,” she said, referring to dancing and teaching dancing. “I want it back so bad.”
Dozens of people became sick in that foodborne illness outbreak, which was traced to frozen hamburger patties from Cargill.
About Clifford Tousignant, a brave veteran who came home from the Korean War with three Purple Hearts. He died after being infected with Salmonella, a foodborne pathogen that was in the peanut butter in a sandwich he had eaten.
In that foodborne illness outbreak, which was traced to peanut butter and peanut paste made by the Peanut Corporation of America at its Blakely, GA, processing plant., more than 714 people became ill and nine people died. I also told the students some ways they could prevent food poisoning–cooking hamburgers until they’re all the way done, for example, and making sure they wash their hands before and after handling food. I encouraged them to share these tips with their parents.
Not wanting to scare them to death, I assured them that most of the food they eat is safe and that the stories I had just told them involved only a very small number of specific companies and cases. But I also told them that the stories illustrate why it’s so important for companies and farmers who produce our food to follow the right steps to keep dangerous pathogens out of our food.
The auditorium got very still as I talked. The students seemed to be absorbing what I had to say. But when it was time for questions, one girl raised her hand and told me that her father barbecues all their hamburgers during the summer and that he insists that they be pink in the middle.
“He’s in charge,” she said. “How can I tell him that what he’s doing isn’t safe? I’d be afraid to do that.”
I asked the students if they had any ideas to share with her. Some said she needed to be brave and do it. Others said she should talk with her mom about it.
“He doesn’t listen to anything my mom says,” she told the group.
Another student said that his mom works full time and buys packaged salad greens because she doesn’t have time to make salads from scratch. “She’s so busy,” he said. “I could make the salads but I’m gone a lot playing sports, so I wouldn’t be able to do it all of the time.”
Afterward, the students crowded around me thanking me for sharing so much information with them. That made me happy, but I realized that the magic wand’s “Education” app, while very useful, just wasn’t strong enough to perform all of the necessary functions. That sometimes there are some subtle personal dynamics involved in preventing food poisoning.
Somewhat daunted, but still optimistic, I got up the next day and pushed the “Prevention” button. It told me to go to farms and food processing companies in my area and explain what they could do to make sure potentially fatal pathogens didn’t get onto or into their food. “They’re the ones who can make a huge difference,” it told me.
For a starter, I went out to a farm that’s just down the road from me, and the farmer was very friendly and willing to listen. I began by telling him about Good Agricultural Practices and followed up by saying that a lot of farmers are following them now. But I couldn’t help but notice that he found what I was saying amusing.
He chuckled when I was done and told me not to worry. He was farming the same way his grandfather and father had and “no one ever got sick.” When I explained that E. coli had mutated into a far more dangerous pathogen than when he was growing up, he said: “Could be, but none of my customers have gotten sick yet.”
When I went to the local farmers market the next Saturday and talked with one of his customers, she happily
told me that she follows
USDA’s advice to “know your farmer.” “I see him every Saturday at the market,” she said. “We always talk about the meat and vegetables he’s selling. He’s a very nice man. I know I don’t have to worry about the food I buy from him.”
Discouraged, I returned home with the realization that the magic wand’s “Prevention” app wasn’t 100 percent perfect. But the next day, I was still optimistic enough to push the “Legislation” app. “Go tell Congress members that they have to fund the new food safety bill,” it told me.
That one seemed simple enough. After all, the food safety bill had passed with bipartisan support. Surely, the legislators would hunker down and make sure the funding for increased inspections would be available. Just thinking about last year’s recall of more than one-half billion eggs due to Salmonella poisoning and the lack of inspections at the egg farms where they had come from would surely be enough to trigger their decision for the necessary funding. Or so I thought.
Taking some peanut butter sandwiches along to make the point that even peanut butter can be dangerous if food safety procedures aren’t followed, I pitched my plea to the elected officials.
Many agreed that the funding was necessary, but others stood up and made “grand” speeches about how safe our food is — 99.9 percent safe, said one legislator. When I pointed out that nine people had actually died from eating contaminated peanut butter during the 2009 outbreak and that more than 1,500 people were sickened before the recent egg recall, one of the legislators said we had a huge deficit and that the nation couldn’t afford the money it would take to fund the inspections that the bill called for.
When I left, I took the platter of peanut butter sandwiches with me. I couldn’t help but notice that none of the legislators had taken any.
I returned home discouraged but still hopeful that the legislators would vote for the funding.
From all of these experiences, I realized that while there are many things my magic wand could do to help prevent food poisoning, it didn’t have enough magic to accomplish everything. I wrapped it up and returned it to the company. I enclosed a letter asking to be notified when the next upgrade becomes available.
“I think you might need more apps,” I said. “But I’m not sure what they would be. It seems like it might take more than magic to stop food poisoning altogether. Perhaps you can devise a program that removes all of the glitches that stand in the way.”
So for now, I’ll keep doing what I can to help people understand the precautions they can take to make sure their food is safe to eat. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if that food safety wand will ever get all of the apps it needs. At least, not as long as human beings are part of the equation.