Washington Post: A reasonable and rational discussion of microbial food safety

Tomorrow’s Washington Post has a food safety feature with some relevant history and reminders that get lost in the vitriol of activist politics. Excerpts (some will say cherry picking, go read the article yourself) below.

Arthur Allen, a Washington writer and the author of "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato" (March 2010, Counterpoint), writes that whatever our politics, we increasingly eat from a communal kitchen.

“The increasing number of front-page outbreaks and the high-profile critiques of the food system by such writers as Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore’s Dilemma") and Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") can give the impression that the U.S. food supply is spiraling out of control. But is Americans’ food, in fact, more dangerous that it was in the day of home-cooked meals? People who have studied the numbers aren’t convinced. …

“In the mid-1990s, the CDC began bolstering its surveillance of food-borne illness. One result was the ability to measure whether food was becoming more or less safe. Between 1998 and 2004, illnesses reported by CDC that were caused by E. Coli, listeria, campylobacter and a few other bacteria decreased by 25 to 30 percent, perhaps because of improvements in the handling of meat and eggs. Since about 2004, however, the rate of these illnesses has basically remained steady.”

John Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida at Gainesville, said,

"It’s an ongoing problem, and consumers need to use reasonable caution in terms of food preparation. But it’s not a ‘go screaming down the hall the world is coming to an end’ kind of thing."

Based on its evolutionary tree, scientists think that O157:H7 probably has existed for hundreds or even thousands of years. But it hadn’t been noticed in our food supply until 1982, when a small-town doctor in Oregon reported to the CDC that he’d seen a group of patients with bloody diarrhea. Another group got sick with the same symptoms in Michigan a little later. All had eaten hamburgers at McDonald’s, said Michael Doyle, director of the Food Safety Center at the University of Georgia (left, exactly as shown).

McDonald’s hired Doyle to help fix the problem, and he told company officials that one way to be sure to kill O157:H7 was by heating their hamburgers to at least 155 degrees. McDonald’s officials grumbled that they would lose customers, but they did what he told them, Doyle says. At the time, FDA guidelines recommended heating to 140 degrees.

Most other hamburger chains kept cooking at lower temperatures in order to produce juicier burgers that attracted customers who didn’t like the "hockey pucks" being served at McDonald’s. That continued until 1993, when Jack-in-the-Box reaped the consequences of looking the other way — crippling lawsuits, bankruptcy, $160 million in losses.

But the O157:H7 seems to be out of the barn — and into the pasture. … studies have shown that "natural," grass-fed cattle are now also likely to carry it. In the Earthbound Farm case, genetic fingerprinting indicated that the spinach had been contaminated with bacteria carried by cattle that ranged on land nearby.

Centralization doesn’t necessarily mean less-safe food. A well-run centralized industry is arguably easier to police and control than a more decentralized one. For example, a handful of companies produce most of the 12 million tons of tomato paste that makes its way into pizza and spaghetti sauces, ketchup, salsas and other products. This industry’s record is very clean, in terms of contamination.