November 2, 2011
by Dennis T. Avery
Deirdre Schlunegger, the head of an organization named "STOP Food borne Illness," warned recently on the Huffington Post website that the government won't have enough money next year to implement the new safety inspections authorized by the Food Safety Modernization Act. That act was signed into law by President Obama last January, but the federal budget cuts demanded by Republicans may now prevent the food protection agencies from carrying it out.
Ms. Schlunegger says food safety should come first among our priorities, not after people have gotten sick. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 48 million cases of food-borne illness in this country each year, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. She says, "Farmers, food producers, transporters, and retailers of food products in this country need to be regulated by stricter laws that have deeper consequences."
Unfortunately, even with unlimited funding, the new food safety law wouldn't give us much protection. Salmonella bacteria are everywhere. Inspectors say they have never visited a cattle farm that did not harbor the deadly E. coli O157: H7. Listeria from tainted cantaloupes grown in Colorado recently killed 23 people and sickened more than 100, but listeria, too, is ubiquitous.
Schlunegger rightly anguishes over the dozens of people who died from eating the tainted Colorado cantaloupes, but we can't afford government investigators in every field. What to do?
The new food safety law focuses almost entirely on finding the sources of infection after the fact and punishing the food suppliersâ€"but the dangerous bacteria would still infest much of our fruits, vegetables, meats, and eggs. The real answer, since we can't eliminate the bacteria from nature, is to eliminate them from our food.
Schlunegger says "Alex Donley, 6, from Chicago, died from E. coli O157:H7 after eating a tainted hamburger at a backyard cookout. How would his parents have known that the pre-packaged patty would end his life?"
Fortunately, the Cargill company recently introduced a new way to eliminate the deadly bacteria from our hamburger by putting the ground meat under 64,000 pounds of pressure in a flexible pouch. The high pressure bursts the bacterial cell structures and prevents the bugs from multiplying. Thus, no dangerous bacterial infection.
Another technology, electronic pasteurization, could destroy the food-borne bacteria on virtually all our fruits, vegetables, chickens and eggs. It's cheap, effective, and approved by health authorities in dozens of countries. No one does the electronic pasteurization, because no consumers demand it.
Apparently, we're very reluctant to try new technologies in our food. Witness the craze for 'natural' foodsâ€"which carry natural bacteria. We wouldn't even have pasteurized milk if it hadn't been for an epidemic of cattle spreading tuberculosis and warm milk is the perfect medium for proliferating most of the dangerous food-borne bacteria.
Deirdre Schlunegger thinks government can protect us from bacteria. I've worked for the food inspection agencies, and I don't believe they can possibly live up to that job description whether in organic food or conventionally raised food.
The only path forward in food safety for the past 200 years has been such scientific improvements as pasteurization, canning, and freezing (to reduce spoilage), "artificial" food additives and other technologies that improve on nature.
Cargill is selling its high-pressure hamburger only to the restaurant trade, because it doesn't believe supermarket customers will recognize its safety. Maybe Deirdre Schlunegger and the Huffington Post could help publicize the technologies that could make our food safe and with no impact on the national budget.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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