It encompasses 2,438 pages spanning six volumes, cost somewhere between $1 million and $10 million to produce, and weighs just under 40 pounds.
“Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” is a $625 cookbook, an epic culinary tome of encyclopedic magnitude, and the newest holy grail of foodie geekdom written by 21st century Renaissance man Nathan Myhrvold, Ph. D., and two accomplished experimental chefs, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.
Released in early March, the book has attracted astronomical levels of attention (or, in this case, gastronomical?) with its 1,500 recipes and mad scientist approach to preparing and understanding food. Amazon.com has it on backorder, while Myhrvold recently served Stephen Colbert pastrami cooked for 72 hours from a vacuum-sealed bag submerged in 130-degree water.
But while the culinary world bustles to absorb the book into the contemporary lexicon, two prominent food safety experts have taken issue with certain parts of an excerpt from the book in which Myhrvold and his co-authors suggest excessively conservative food safety standards limit the breadth of tastes and textures achievable in the kitchen and foster a general culture of overcooking.
On March 13, Scientific American published an edited excerpt from Modernist Cuisine titled “The Complex Origins of Food Safety–Yes, You Are Overcooking Your Food.” The article covers everything from a detailed explanation of D-values — the standards for killing specific percentages of pathogens in food — to the cultural and political factors that influence food safety standards, with its central argument being that cooking times and temperatures recommended by U.S. governmental agencies go “far beyond those supported by science.”
In a March 24 post on Barfblog titled “Modernist Cuisine and food safety,” professor of food safety at Kansas State University and Barfblog publisher Douglas Powell, Ph. D., responded to the excerpt by describing it as “best characterized by selective referencing and incomplete claims — the playbook for rhetorical argumentation.”
He challenged portions of the excerpt, most notably its assertion that food safety advocates carry heavy political clout while culinary professionals have little sway in comparison, saying that he and other promoters of evidence-based guidelines have little clout either.
Three days later, extension specialist in food science and professor at Rutgers University, Donald W. Schaffner, Ph. D., responded with his own critique on Barfblog, “More Modernist Cuisine and bad microbial food safety.” In part, Schaffner commended the authors’ accessible explanation of the “probability game” behind food safety standards, but criticized the excerpt for “sorely lacking” in food microbiology understanding.
In his post, Schaffner agreed with the excerpt’s assessment that food safety standards are sometimes inconsistent and certainly conservative, but argued they are conservative by necessity, are still improving through continual challenges and analysis, and are based on knowledge and evidence available at the time. Schaffner was a member of the national advisory committee that successfully advised the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to lower its recommended internal cooking temperature for poultry from 180 degrees to 165 in 2006.
“What it comes down to with food safety policy is that there are no clear decisions on what recommendations should be made,” Powell said in a phone interview. “For all its faults, the transparency [of the policy-making process in the U.S.] is as good as it gets–you can find out why they made a certain decision. Policy is based on assumptions we’ve made and data that’s available, and you might not agree with it, but at least you can see how the decision was made.”
The Modernist Cuisine excerpt contends that many nongovernmental food safety experts consider most D-value standards excessively high, such as the 6.5D standard for fresh foods (equal to killing 99.99997 percent of pathogens, the authors point out), with these experts instead considering 5D or 6D sufficient. Higher D-values correspond to higher minimum temperatures and longer cooking times, allowing food to reach higher internal temperatures.
As Powell explained, the process for setting recommendations take into account the historical pathogen loads in foods and the severity of the targeted pathogen’s impact on health. According to Kenneth Todar’s “Online Textbook of Bacteriology,” overt forms of Listeria monocytogenes have a fatality rate approaching 25 percent, while Salmonella’s fatality rate falls below one percent. It might be expected, then, for foods associated with potential Listeria contamination to be set to higher safety standards than foods primarily associated with Salmonella.
“It takes an incredible amount of resources and people to do this properly,” Powell said of establishing safe cooking temperatures.
In the case of the FSIS lowering the recommended internal poultry temperature, Schaffner’s committee based its recommendation on evidence that at 165 degrees, viable Salmonella was reduced at a ratio of 10,000,000 to 1–or a 9D reduction–in both chicken and turkey. The review was inspired by cases of illness in Michigan and Minnesota in 2005 in which microwaveable chicken products were not cooked sufficiently by consumers but appeared to be ready to eat. The study calls Salmonella the most heat-resistant pathogen associated with raw poultry.
Both Schaffner and Powell noted that they had not read “Modernist Cuisine” beyond its six-page excerpt and that without reading the rest of the book — or the excerpted chapter in full as it appears in the book — it is impossible to judge the full extent of its food safety commentary. In a response to Schaffner’s criticism that the excerpt included no citations, Myhrvold clarified that the book does include references and citations; the references were deleted in the excerpt for Scientific American’s general-audience readership.
What the “Modernist Cuisine” authors and their food safety critics might agree on is that more scientific evidence influencing food safety standards is generally a positive development.
“Inconsistency is to be expected, given that different people developed different standards at different times and for different reasons,” Schaffner wrote. “Is this a good thing? Probably not. Is it starting to change? I’d say that I’m cautiously optimistic, and kudos to those who are trying to move forward and use risk-based or risk-informed decision making processes.”