I thought about this last week when I took my 6-year-old grandson for a walk. At one point we crossed a very busy street at a crosswalk. My grandson was interested to know why the cars stopped to let us cross, so I explained the government had passed a law that said cars had to yield to pedestrians walking in a crosswalk. I added that whenever he wanted to cross a busy street at a crosswalk, he did not have to look both ways before crossing, as his mother had taught him to do, because of the law. He could run across the street within the crosswalk anytime he wanted to and without looking – the law says the cars have to stop.
Such advice would be crazy, of course. And no, I did not really tell my grandson not to look both ways before crossing a busy street. I told him his mother was right, the world is a dangerous place and he should always look both ways before crossing any road.
But with our increasingly tough federal food regulations as well as the increasingly sophisticated food-safety technologies used by the food industry, aren’t we, in effect, telling consumers that they needn’t be so cautious when it comes to the safety of food products? Isn’t the government and industry saying: Don’t worry, because we inspect, we test, we clean, we sanitize, we inspect again, we test some more, we throw everything we’ve got at foodborne pathogens and then some – you the consumer can assume your food is safe?
Consider E. coli O157:H7 specifically. It’s a particularly troublesome food pathogen because O157:H7 belongs to a family of bacteria that’s present in the digestive tracts of all mammals – you, me, your cat, your dog, cattle, hogs, furry little lambs, fuzzy baby foxes, smooth baby whales and every other mammalian creature. It comes in literally hundreds of varieties, and fortunately most of these are harmless to humans. If that weren’t the case, we would all be nauseous all the time, given the numbers of E. coli ever-present in the human body.
But while E. coli O157:H7 comprises a very small percentage of all E. coli, we know it has the ability to make at-risk people – the young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems – extremely sick, sometimes fatally so, at very low concentrations. Just a few O157:H7 cells are enough to kill a human being with the extremely potent toxin they will produce.
Not so long ago, the meat industry and its regulators assumed O157:H7 was a problem peculiar and limited to the US beef industry, but recent research shows O157:H7 to be pretty randomly distributed. It is unstopped by mountains, deserts, even oceans. At one time my friends in Australia were convinced they had no E. coli O157:H7 to worry about on their island continent nation, but then the pathogen was found in grass-fed cattle raised way out in the outback. In North America, O157:H7 has been found in wild deer as well as in cattle herds, flocks of sheep, chickens, and on hog farms. It’s been found in fresh spinach, lettuce, apple juice, orange juice, raw milk, alfalfa sprouts, and water – indeed, O157:H7 now adulterates more fresh produce than it does ground beef. It likes people, too: People can pass it to people, and O157:H7 has been found in homes, hospitals, daycare centers, schools, and nursing homes. Moreover, O157:H7 is just one of dozens of pathogenic types of E. coli, collectively called STECs.
So much for “hamburger disease,” as E. coli adulteration was once called. O157:H7 and its brethren STECs – 0111, 0104, 026, etc.; more than 100 STEC strains have been identified so far – are everywhere. These are pathogens that are always one step ahead of what we know about them. And even if the regulators and the food industry do somehow catch up, the pathogens simply evolve again, as all creatures will.
For consumers, the risk of O157:H7 adulterating food is made even more serious because a negative test for E. coli in food does not mean there’s no O157:H7 present. Only a millimeter away from a clean food particle, another particle can be honeycombed with O157:H7 organisms. That’s why lab results for food tested for O157:H7 and found clean always state “this product has been tested for E. coli O157:H7 and found to be negative.” The government as well as the food industry can never claim that a product has been tested and found to be completely free of E. coli O157:H7.
We must put food-safety laws, however thorough and much-needed they may be, and food-safety technologies, however efficient they may be, into the same context we put traffic laws. Believing that foodborne pathogens, including deadly E. coli O157:H7, can be completely eliminated from food is as crazy as thinking you don’t have to look in both directions before you step off the curb. The consequences of a false sense of food security can be devastating: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that E. coli O157:H7 is the source of 73,000 illnesses, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 60 deaths in the United States every year.
The fact is, 100 years from now dangerous varieties of E. coli will still be present in food no matter how many laws our politicians in Washington, DC, pass or how many technologies the food industry brings to bear on the pathogen problem. Even though we may wish otherwise, the world can be a dangerous place, and consumers must take personal responsibility and proactively protect their own safety. Two things we should always do are: look both ways before crossing any street, and fully cook meat.
Len Steiner runs an economic consulting firm, www.steinerconsulting.com, dedicated to improving the value delivered and economic performance of food companies. He has been active in the sale, production and distribution of quality healthy food products for more than 30 years.