Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety at Cornell University’s food science department, told CBC News we really are seeing far more food recalls and outbreaks these days, “But that doesn’t mean our food is less safe. It’s the opposite. What happened over the last 20 years and really accelerated over the last two years is the use of completely new DNA fingerprinting tools to detect disease outbreaks. Today, we are 100 times more likely to detect an outbreak than we were 20 years ago.”
Health officials have developed a system to track the genetic makeup of salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. Once a food-related illness outbreak is identified, scientists can match the DNA from contaminated food with the bacteria making people sick, and potentially trace it to the originating food processing plant.
In light of that long list of recalls, and the fact that we’re detecting more outbreaks, shouldn’t they also be steering us away from salad and cantaloupes? After all, based on the recalls, they might sound like risky foods.
Wiedmann says that’s not really so. He points to the reason we see few cases of issues arising from raw milk consumption as an example of why.
“Much, much fewer people consume raw milk,” he said.
“So we don’t hear much about raw milk outbreaks. But we hear about outbreaks with lettuce, so [people think] lettuce must be less safe. Quite the opposite, because you need to consider the total amount of the food produced — what is your chance of getting sick from eating one of these servings.”
Wiedmann also points out that a recall isn’t the same as an outbreak. In most cases, food recalls are precautionary, and the products haven’t actually made anyone sick.
We call them outbreaks now because we can easily link a specific product in California, for example, with a handful of sick people in separate provinces or states, thanks to the DNA fingerprinting Wiedmann mentioned.
The bottom line, he says, is that those high-risk products health officials advise against, like unpasteurized cheese, are actually riskier than the products making news headlines.
A cheese that’s acceptable in the French countryside isn’t in urban Canada, largely because of our cultural biases.
“The challenge is that risk isn’t binary,” Wiedmann said.
“It’s just not like ‘risk’ or ‘no-risk.’ There’s a gradation… And then somewhere in the middle, someone puts a line. And that line is arbitrary, because no food is risk free.”