The landmark Food Safety Modernization Act, signed earlier this month by President Obama, certainly provides a long overdue increase in food safety authority to the Food and Drug Administration. But is it enough authority – or even too much? Is there a risk that consumers will be lulled by the Act into a false sense of security?
I thought about this last week when I took my six-year-old grandson for a walk. At one point we crossed a very busy street at a crosswalk. My grandson was interested to know why the cars stopped to let us cross, so I explained the government had passed a law that said cars had to yield to pedestrians walking in a crosswalk. I added that whenever he wanted to cross a busy street at a crosswalk, he did not have to look both ways before crossing, as his mother had taught him to do, because of the law. He could run across the street within the crosswalk anytime he wanted to and without looking – the law says the cars have to stop.
Such advice would be crazy, of course. (And no, I did not really tell my grandson not to look both ways before crossing a busy street. I told him his mother was right, the world is a dangerous place and he should always look both ways before crossing any road.) But with our increasingly tough federal food regulations as well as the increasingly sophisticated food-safety technologies used by the food industry, aren’t we, in effect, telling consumers that they needn’t be so cautious when it comes to the safety of food products?
Consider E. coli O157:H7 specifically. It’s a particularly troublesome food pathogen because O157:H7 belongs to a family of bacteria that’s present in the digestive tracts of all mammals – you, me, your cat, your dog, cattle, hogs, furry little lambs, fuzzy baby foxes, smooth baby whales and every other mammalian creature. It comes in literally hundreds of varieties, and fortunately most of these are harmless to humans. But while E. coli O157:H7 comprises a very small percentage of all E. coli, we know it has the ability to make at-risk people – the young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems – extremely sick, sometimes fatally so, at very low concentrations.
Not so long ago, the meat industry and its regulators assumed O157:H7 was a problem peculiar and limited to the U.S. beef industry, but recent research shows O157:H7 is unstopped by mountains, deserts, even oceans. It’s been found in fresh spinach, lettuce, apple juice, orange juice, raw milk, alfalfa sprouts, and water – indeed, O157:H7 now adulterates more fresh produce than it does ground beef. It has been found in homes, hospitals, daycare centers, schools, and nursing homes.
For consumers, the risk of O157:H7 adulterating food is made even more serious because a negative test for E. coli in food does not mean there’s no O157:H7 present. Only a millimeter away from a clean food particle, another particle can be honeycombed with O157:H7 organisms. That’s why lab results for food tested for O157:H7 and found clean always state “this product has been tested for E. coli O157:H7 and found to be negative.” The government as well as the food industry can never claim that a product has been tested and found to be completely free of E. coli O157:H7.
We must put food-safety laws, however thorough and much-needed they may be, and food-safety technologies, however efficient they may be, into the same context we put traffic laws. Believing that foodborne pathogens, including deadly E. coli O157:H7, can be completely eliminated from food is as crazy as thinking you don’t have to look in both directions before you step off the curb. The consequences of a false sense of food security can be devastating: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that E. coli O157:H7 is the source of 73,000 illnesses, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 60 deaths in the United States every year.
The fact is, 100 years from now dangerous varieties of E. coli will still be present in food no matter how many laws our politicians in Washington, DC, pass or how many technologies the food industry brings to bear on the pathogen problem. Even though we may wish otherwise, the world can be a dangerous place, and consumers must take personal responsibility and proactively protect their own safety. Two things we should always do are: look both ways before crossing any street, and fully cook meat.