Beyond the Plate

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Food Safety 2010 by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

More than an upset tummy

No matter how many recalls reach the news, foodborne illness deserves our attention and respect. In healthy individuals, harmful bacteria may cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and resolve in a few days. But children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with a weakened immune system are at greatest risk for severe illness, long-term complications and death. In recent years we've witnessed more resilient, virulent, and antibiotic resistant bacteria, which contribute to worse outcomes. (8)

Patricia Buck, Executive Director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention lost her two-year-old grandson, Kevin, to E. coli 0157:H7 poisoning in 2001. This especially deadly strain of E. coli causes hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure. Kevin's agonizing illness and death was traced to two "ground meat patties." (8)

What went wrong?

Dan Imhoff, author of "CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories," explains: "Salmonella and E. coli are the bacteria that seem to most often cause outbreaks in the US—and both originate exclusively from animals. ...corn-fed cattle in industrial feedlots carry by far the most E. coli bacteria." Imhoff cites a USDA study which found “when cattle were abruptly switched from a high grain diet to an all hay diet, total E. coli populations declined 1,000-fold within 5 days.” (9, 10)

Ground meat and poultry typically become contaminated with fecal bacteria during slaughter and processing. Salmonella can infect a hen's ovary, thereby contaminating her eggs. Irrigation water containing raw animal waste or human sewage has been the culprit in contaminated fresh produce. Food handlers can also introduce bacteria and viruses. As a rule, thorough cooking kills harmful bacteria.

Questioning "Value"

While several key bacteria lead the cause for concern, microbial contamination isn't the only reason for a recall. For example, in July, Perdue recalled 90,000 pounds of  "Great Value" frozen chicken nuggets because of the presence of plastic pieces released from a malfunctioning processing machine. According to Perdue, all of the nuggets were discarded.

It's hard to put a total price tag on food recalls, because rarely are environmental costs from wasted energy, natural resources and disposal factored into the equation anywhere, let alone into media reports. But a recent FDA study estimated that the cost of acute foodborne illness (including a few long-term health related costs) alone totaled $152 billion per year. (12)

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