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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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  • frank

    Please consider the merits of buying local. Knowing the sources and establishing a relationship with those who grow & harvest your food will also reduce many of your risks. You won’t find local eggs recalled by the millions. Even if a local farmer passes on a harmful product it is limited to hundreds and can be recalled and identified easier.

  • Anonymous

    Hooray! Glad to see an argument I’ve been making for about 3 decades getting such a strong presentation. Although exact numbers are unknowable and some raw ingredients ARE contaminated when you buy them (chickens, for instance, in many cases), by far the overwhelming percentage of serious food poisonings happen in public places: restaurants, hospitals etc.
    Yet it’s home cooks who are constantly browbeaten to wipe everything down with antibacterials every other minute, to cook all meats into inedibility, never ever drink eggnog or enjoy Hollandaise…
    This is not only a misplaced emphasis, it could be a danger to public health – if it is indeed responsible for the huge rise in food allergies. The Hygiene Hypothesis has yet to be definitively proved, but it sure has the merit of making a lot of sense.

  • Jim Schmidt, REHS

    A 1 part vinegar to 3 part water solution is very effective in killing pathogens.
    In my job I’ve found most foodborne illness happens in the home. Further, buying local is not a guarantee of better or safer product. A small farm contributes just as much to the larger farms. When a small farm passes on a harmful product it is commingled and cross contaminates. All sources small and large, organic and or not are potential sources of foodborne illness. To think otherwise is just sticking your head in the sand.

  • realityeater

    If you are looking for someone who knows a little something about the food we eat and how it is grown, harvested and produced, this woman isn’t the one to ask. Ask a poultry or livestock farmer for one of the big companies and then investigate what they have seen with their own eyes. Her bio: Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s food writing has appeared in Gourmet, Saveur, Salon, and the Boston Globe, and she’s a regular contributor to Public Radio Kitchen. She’s a serial entrepreneur who has, among other things, run a boutique ad agency and an English-language newsmagazine in Ecuador. She’s working on something that begins with B and ends with K, but doesn’t want to jinx herself by saying any more. She’s an excellent home cook, a die-hard fruge, and a proud graduate of the Columbia School of Mixology.

  • skaizun

    With the growing concern over obesity and organic foods and recent health scares (“one grape has a fungus! destory the entire industry!”), everyone from farmers to food manufacturers to restaurants have become increasingly aware of the consumer’s microscope they’re under, much less the gov’t. As such, they have become better at policing themselves. It’s only those who don’t watch their own plants who become complacent and allow bad things to happen (e.g., the recent and separate peanut and egg scares).

    Yesterday, at a fast-food chain, a worker put on plastic “gloves”, turned his head, covered his mouth with his arm, then sneezed, less than one foot away from the food prep area, loaded with food items to be put on the sandwiches. I was taken aback, and was about to walk out, but the thought occurred to me, that I’ve seen so many food servers do unhealthy things around food, yet I’ve never gotten sick (at least, not from the food!). I know that most of these people are taken off the street, given a couple of hours worth of instruction, and a few minutes of safe food handling, but, would it kill anyone to show them a 15-second film on what a sneeze can do, even when covered? And, I assure you, it wouldn’t cost $1.4 billion dollars (hey . . . what’s 1/10th of 1% of the Health Deform – - er, REform – - Law between tax payers, eh?). ;)

  • Jacklyn House

    How many people watch PBS or listen to it? I don’t. This person wrote this as a personal slap in the face of our President, and I’m shocked that PBS allowed this to be posted anywhere. I used to watch PBS but DISH doesn’t carry it, but if this is the type of hype they are spewing these days, I’m glad I don’t rely on PBS for my information. What were those Foundations thinking when they hired Anastacia? I would have done a better job.

  • Jwenderoff

    Antibiotics often are used on industrial farms not only to treat sick animals but also to compensate for the effects of overcrowding and poor sanitation, as well as to spur animal growth. In fact, up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to healthy food animals. This makes the U.S. one of the biggest users of antibiotics in food animal production in the world. Most of the antibiotics used on farms in the U.S. are obtained and used without the consultation of a veterinarian. The lack of oversight, coupled with the magnitude of administration of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, has potentially irreversible serious consequences for human health.

    In July 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified before Congress that there was a definitive link between the routine, non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics on industrial farms and the crisis of antibiotic resistance in humans. Moreover, the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization and other leading medical groups all warn that the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in food animals presents a serious and growing threat to human health because it creates new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

    You can learn more at

  • Ross Knights

    The author seems to be mistaking food poisoning as the primary health risk posed by mass-produced food products. Look at the bigger picture. Bacterial contamination due to mishandling isn’t at all on the scale of systemic contaminants (toxic pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones).

  • lslskimom

    Jim, do you use this solution on produce?

  • Bachross

    If you are calling the “Truth” a “Slap in the face of our President” then may he continue to be slapped. Truth is Truth. You either accept it or you go on your blissful ignorance. To quote Lilly Tomlin, “and that’s the truth, pppppppppttttttttt!”

  • Rocketlady

    Patients who demand antibiotic prescriptions for the wrong reasons and physicians who give antibiotics to them is the primary source of resistant organisms in humans.

  • Smarter than the Average Mom

    “The biggest danger to your health comes from livestock feeding practices, food industry negligence.” How is this NOT true? Unhealthy animals make the people who eat them unhealthy. You are what you eat. Just like the apex predator fish in the ocean accumulate mercury and other contaminants at shocking levels, PEOPLE (who are the apex predator in our corrupt food system) are accumulating antibiotics, pesticides, and other nasties in our bodies due to our consumption of unethically raised animal products and the feed they are forced to eat.

  • Brenda Hastings

    I’m a third generation dairy producer and can tell you there are many rules and regulations in place to insure dairy products are safe and wholesome. Every single tank load of milk entering a dairy processing plant in the United States is strictly tested for animal drug residues and disposed of if it tests positive. Therefore, no milk you purchase in the store contains antibiotics – not “regular” conventional milk, not rBST free milk and not organic milk.

    Dairy cows are not fed antibiotics. If a cow gets sick on our farm, she goes to the hospital pen where she receives special care and is treated with antibiotics if necessary. Milk from hospital cows is discarded. For example, if one cow is being treated with antibiotics at our farm and her milk accidentally gets into our 4,000 gallon milk tank that entire tank load of milk will test positive for antibiotics and it will be dumped. As a result, we would not be paid for that tank load of milk and would face disciplinary action. There is no economic advantage to overusing antibiotics.

    Just as you may be treated with antibiotics if you get sick, we sometimes treat a cow with antibiotics when she is sick. As dairy farmers, we are responsible and accountable for the use of antibiotics on our animals. These products are expensive and only used as necessary as prescribed by a veterinarian.

  • Greg23517

    I have a sneaking suspicion you get your news from Faux News.

  • Greg23517

    The main argument I have with the article is the effort to present information as if it runs counter to the efforts by the president without stating specifically how the new money being “poured into the FDA” is to be used. For all I know the money will be used to address the problems the author identified as the ‘real’ problem. Additionally, while it sound shocking to talk about big numbers like 1.4 billion dollars, keep in mind there are over 300,000,000 people in the United States. Spending 1.4 billion is spending about $4 per individual to address the problem. $4 per person to try to prevent the loss of what the author seems to identify as an insignificant 4,000 lives sounds like a bargain to me. Not to mention the author ignores the cost to the country in lost productivity when 5.5 million people are out sick due to food born illnesses. Most disgusting of all is the notion that the woman who got Salmonella didn’t matter because she already had cancer. Should we use dirty needles to administer cancer drugs because the person already has cancer anyway.

  • Greg23517

    We are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.

  • Caseyjeans06

    The point is not that she didn’t matter because she had cancer. The point is that because she has cancer, she is likely immunocompromised by her cancer medications and her body was therefore much less able to fend off an attack by a virus or bacteria. She could have just as easily died from the flu rather than Salmonella. Unfortunately, she got a bad jar of peanut butter that would have made anyone else sick but led to her death because of her other problems.

  • Casey

    You know that most of “these people” are taken off the streets? I know most of these people desperately need work. The fact of the matter is: germs are everywhere. Unless you can create a completely sterile field in a fast food restaurant, you will be exposed to germs. Be grateful that food worker sneezed into his arm rather than into his gloved hands or onto the food. It seems to me that he was, in fact, taught appropriate technique in food handling and was following probably every rule he was taught. People sneeze. I am sure you have had a few sneezes in your time that you were unable to prevent. I hope you are not seriously suggesting that food workers be fired for not controlling their sneezes or not running to the back room just to sneeze. If you are, I hope you consider paying the same respect to the people you serve in your business when you need to sneeze in the same room as them.

  • Paul Tuttle08

    shame on you!!!,making this debate political discredits your article…thumbs down:(

  • Paul Tuttle08

    this comment is better advise than the article,common sense=buy local

  • Bruce

    This writer is evidently a shrill for the huge industrialized food growers who have destroyed small farms and small poultry growers , etc. She and PBS, a staton I watch for the Arts and science and history, etc – should be ashamed of printing this article. Deniers are everywhere and she sure is one! Government funding is to protect us. Does she know how many USDA meat inspectors there are to inspect and review the practices of meat processors nd producers. How mnany recalls of tainted meat happen every year in our country. Big business and large corporations always lookk for ways to save money and look the other way at violations until they are caught. And then they pay a fine and admit to no wrong — like Wall Street and Bankers !
    As to dying from any of the bacteria or viruses from tainted food – she should have to go through being infected by same and see how close you come to wanting to die or feel like you are dying. I had Salmonella posisoning from tainted meat when in my early 20′s. I was an athlete in great shape and it was the worst experience I have ever had in my life and would not wish it on my worst enemy or writer. I lost 15 lbs in 7 days, could not keep food or drink down for more than a few minutes, had a severe pain in the pit of my stomach/sternum that only went away by sitting and curling over – hardly any sleep, complete dehydration, and a burning fever of over 102 degrees. I also had some tearing of my stomsch and food pipe muscles from the constant heavy heaving/throwing up — many times dry or just bile.
    Maybe she should experience it once and then and then pooh, pooh how many people do not actually die from it! What a jerk and inconsiderate person.. There were also pregnant woman in my municipality that mis-carriaged and lost their fetuses because of this outbreak of Salmonella poisoning! But she does omit the old and the very young can succumb to death from it — as if that does not matter as long as the masses survive.

  • Judith Raunig-Graham

    Just because not all who get it die from either e.coli or salmonella means, therefore, that we don’t need to be concerned about contracting it. As the first person commented here, salmonella can be a horrible experience — my brother-in-law once suffered from it and he also considered it to be one of the worst experiences of his life. Several years later, my niece nearly died from an episode of e.coli. It seems obvious that no one but a masochist would want tro fall ill with these problems.
    What wasn’t even mentioned in the article was the food coming in from other countries, which may not have the standards one would hope. Nor has this country devoted the enough money to enhance our own food safety inspections at point of entry.

    What really bothered me about the article, however, was the rather snide attitude of the writer. Good journalism is supposed to strive for objectivity, unless it is an opinion piece.

  • culinary student

    Nowhere in this list of qualifications do I see the words “sanitation” or “microbiology.” Anastacia needs to go back to school and do something that resembles research before she writes another word on this subject. She can start by taking a course in sanitation and watching “Food, Inc.,” which I believe has been run by PBS in the fairly-recent past. She sounds like a Cargill or Monsanto employee, a snotty one at that.

  • Satut

    I liked the article, the tone ,the writing and the content though I seem to be in the minority. I also liked inkichengarden’s comments and I do think all this emphasis on antibacterials and overuse of antibiotics is to blame for much of the food poisonings and many other health problems. I myself have had a very miserable experience with food poisoning; a month of on and off reccurring cramps and runs, I blessed my small bathroom with the tub next to the toilet bowl when the food wanted to come out both ways, lost more than 7 pounds of weight and spent many a miserable night in pain. Not by far the worse experience in my life and it didn’t kill me (obviously). You can not cut the incidence of food poisoning by 100%, and the biggest effort should be where most of the problems occur and even so, some will get sick and even die, that’s just life.

  • Jayellpea33

    The point wasn’t that these illnesses don’t suck, it was that there is a LOT of money being thrown at a relatively small problem, statistically speaking. His point was that most of it is caused by poor handling, and since Americans spend so much money eating out, a better training program for and monitoring of restaurant personnel would be a better investment of our money. STATISTICS, people. Look into it.

  • Chris

    Is it just me or does the author say that food borne illness is caused by “poop” in our food (4) and in the same article, say that restaurants and end user handling are the bigger problem(2). I have worked in quite a few restaurants and can honestly say that I haven’t seen animal poop in any of them. Seems to me the FDA is the proper agency to help ensure that practices by FACTORY farms and processors include keeping POOP off of our food as much as possible. Vegetables contaminated by feces from both animal fertilizers sprayed on fields and poor sanitation provided by factory farms for low paid pickers is a problem for sure.
    Then, cleaning food and washing hands is important too, but I would guess that the FDA budget would have to get a big boost to have an inspector in every restaurant,
    An article on what the money in the new legislation is being spent on would have been much more helpful to the argument. Thanks for wasting my time and complicating the problem.