My friend Jim e-mailed me the other day.
Says he still has bad thoughts when he hears a helicopter overhead.
Jim was a dairy farmer located on the edge of a town in Ontario, Canada, called Walkerton, and he said a lot of people were getting sick. The community knew there was a problem several days before health types went public.
On Sunday, May 21, 2000, at 1:30 p.m., the Bruce Grey Owen Sound Health Unit in Ontario, Canada, posted a notice to hospitals and physicians on their web site to make them aware of a boil water advisory and that a suspected agent in the increase of diarrheal cases was E. coli O157:H7.
There had been a marked increase in illness in the town of about 5,000 people, and many were already saying the water was suspect. But the first public announcement was also the Sunday of the Victoria Day long weekend and received scant media coverage.
It wasn’t until Monday evening that local television and radio began reporting illnesses, stating that at least 300 people in Walkerton were ill.
At 11:00 a.m., on Tuesday May 23, the Walkerton hospital jointly held a media conference with the health unit to inform the public of outbreak, make the public aware of the potential complications of the E. coli O157:H7 infection, and to tell the public to take the necessary precautions. This generated a print report in the local paper the next day, which was picked up by the national wire service Tuesday evening, and subsequently appeared in papers across Canada on May 24.
The public outreach efforts were neither speedy nor sufficient. Ultimately, 2,300 people were sickened and seven died – in a town of 5,000. All the gory details and mistakes and steps for improvement were outlined in the report of the Walkerton inquiry.
That outbreak took a huge toll, in numbers, and in personal memories.
The E. coli O157:H7 was thought to originate on a farm owned by a veterinarian and his family at the edge of town, someone my friend Jim knew well, a cow-calf operation that was the poster farm for Environmental Farm Plans. Heavy rains washed cattle manure into a long discarded well-head which was apparently still connected to the municipal system. The brothers in charge of the municipal water system for Walkerton were found to add chlorine based on smell rather than something minimally scientific like test strips, and were criminally convicted.
But the government-mandated reports don’t capture the day-to-day drama and stress that people like my friend experienced. Jim and his family knew many of the sick and dead. This was a small community. News organizations from around the province descended on Walkerton for weeks. They had their own helicopters, but the worst was the medical helicopters flying patients with hemolytic uremic syndrome to the hospital in London. Every time Jim saw one of those, he wondered if it was someone he knew.
That’s lost on L.V. Anderson, a Slate associate editor, who don’t know shit about science or food safety, gives it away when she writes, “educate yourself.”
That’s same motto of anyone on a crusade from anti-vaxxers, raw milk proponents, genetically-engineered food deniers and far too many scientists — and that’s just the tip of the food categories.
I’ve always preferred, if you want to make a choice, have access to evidence-based information (but keep kids out of it, parents are there to protect not politicize their children).
Academics and government regulators like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are not in the business of making value choices (although there have been missteps and critics will always argue).
Of course, they do make value choices, and the best way forward in an everything-is-on-the-Internet-to-support-my-pre-existing opinion is to blatantly state one’s value choices up front.
With food safety, mine are: fewer people barfing.
Scientists and regulators have a responsibility – a duty of care – to share what knowledge they have. I do that as a scientist, as a parent when I question various food safety activities at shool, as a hockey coach, and as a sports medic.
Anderson displays an astonishing naivety to those who have suffered from foodborne illness, especially for someone who lazily decries the nanny state, and offers no solutions.
There are solutions.
Anderson writes that “a closer look at the reasons behind the FDA’s recommendations reveals that they might, just maybe, be exaggerating the risks of cookie dough. … Forty-two people in 21 states have contracted the flour-linked E. coli since December. No one has died. And yet the FDA’s response is to tell everyone—all 319 million Americans—not to eat any uncooked flour whatsoever. By comparison, the Chipotle E. coli outbreaks affected 60 people in 14 states, and the FDA didn’t respond by telling people not to eat at Chipotle.
Anderson goes on to write, in a long, terrible tradition of risk-comparisons are-risky that “The current outbreak is, in the grand scheme of things, very small. It’s true that the potentially effects of an E. coli infection are horrifying…. But your risk of ever contracting E. coli—whether from a spoonful of cake batter or a Chipotle burrito or a spinach salad or some other foodborne source—remains minuscule.
Until it happens to you.