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The Daily Need

Five food safety myths — debunked!

Does the threat of being felled by a carnitas burrito at your local taquería or sidelined by the potato salad at your annual church picnic keep you up at night? Nope? Me neither! But, according to President Obama, the U.S. food system is a “hazard to public health,” and we should all be quivering in our urb-ag-chic Wellies. In January, he signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, authorizing $1.4 billion dollars to be poured into Food and Drug Administration prevention and enforcement activities. Great, except in the quest to fan public outrage, a few untruths have been (conveniently) perpetuated.

1. Food safety is worse than it used to be.

Food safety has actually improved since the mid-1990s when the Centers for Disease Control first began its national monitoring program, with net incidence of the major illnesses falling by 20 percent. On a disease-by-disease basis, that means 30 percent less campylobacter, 41 percent less toxin-producing E. coli and 10 percent less salmonella. In fact, the only increase — by 85 percent — has been in vibrio, contracted by eating raw shellfish. (You heard it, people, shuck and slurp and you’re on your own.) And even though the CDC recently tripled the number of major foodborne pathogens it monitors from 9 to 31, it reduced its estimate of annual illnesses from 76 to 48 million.

2. The biggest danger to your health comes from livestock feeding practices, food industry negligence and the terrorist threat to our food supply.

More than 90 percent* of foodborne illnesses occur within a vast, loosely organized network of rogue microbe breeders: restaurants! (about half of all outbreaks) and a motley assortment of workplaces, banquet facilities, caterers, churches, nursing homes, schools and others. Almost 60 percent of these — 5.5 million illnesses — are caused by norovirus, about which the CDC observes, “In many of these cases, sick food handlers were involved in the spread of the virus.” A 2004 study by the FDA found that 56 percent of fast food and 72 percent of full-service restaurant personnel did not wash their hands often or well enough. Ten viral particles with your soup, sir? (Or fork or menu or credit card?)

3. OMG! I’ve got salmonella! I’m going to DIE!

Just calm down, get plenty of rest and keep hydrated. Your risk of death is extremely small — half of one percent for salmonella, one tenth of one percent for campylobacter and half of one percent for even the most virulent variety of E. coli. In fact, the total annual number of deaths from foodborne illnesses is about 3,000, or the number killed by the flu in a very, very good year. (In a bad year, flu can kill up to 50,000 people.) As with influenza, most food-pathogen-related deaths are among the very old, the very young and the immunologically compromised. That guy who testified before Congress that his mother died from eating contaminated peanut butter? Shirley Almer may have had a lot of sisu, Finnish for spunk, but she also had lung cancer and a brain tumor and was far more susceptible to infections, including the UTI she was hospitalized for when she contracted salmonella.

4. From now on, I’m scouring every tomato! Pressure-washing every pepper!

Go right ahead if it makes you feel in control — and to remove some pesticides and grit. But unless you’re plunging your produce in boiling water or immersing it in a 10 percent bleach solution, those little salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli bacteria are going to go right on doing the things organisms like to do — ingesting, reproducing, excreting. Speaking of which, most major foodborne illnesses are transmitted through feces — campylobacter: chickens; E. coli: cows; salmonella: the whole barnyard; norovirus: us — and some are perfectly normal residents of animal guts. They only cause mayhem when we insert them — via dirty food or hands — in places they shouldn’t be, e.g. our mouths.

5. Anyway, now that the Food Safety Modernization Act’s been signed into law, I don’t have to worry about this stuff, right?

Of course not! Faster recalls, more frequent inspection of food processing facilities, greater importer accountability and high-tech food-chain tracking are going to eradicate all foodborne illnesses…. Except for those 58% that come from norovirus and the other unknown percent — probably substantial — that are caused or exacerbated by risky food service practices such as cross-contamination through utensils, work surfaces and equipment; storage at improper temperatures; commingling of foodstuffs; and, of course, poor hygiene. What with 42% of our food budget spent on meals outside the home, you know what would have really made sense? A national safety-training program for food service workers.

*For some reason (National Restaurant Association lobbying dollars?), the CDC does not regularly analyze data on the location of outbreaks and cases of foodborne illnesses. The more than 90 percent statistic is based on the one year for which totals on number of cases per type of location is available (2007) and my own tabulation of 2008 data downloaded from the OutbreakNet database.

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