Politics & Policy

Food Wars

New York Times on E. coli outbreaks: Conservatives did it.

According to the New York Times, not only are conservatives responsible for the problems of Iraq, Iran, and global warming, they are also to blame for this fall’s E. coli outbreaks in spinach and lettuce that killed three and sickened several hundred.

#ad#In a January 2 piece, Adam Cohen of the Times editorial board writes that “harmful bacteria are rampant in meatpacking plants and in produce fields” in large part because Bush “slashed the number of Food and Drug Administration inspectors” and “installed a former lobbyist for the cattle industry as the Agriculture Department’s chief of staff.”

Cohen urges hearings “to get to the bottom of those recent food disasters.”

In Cohen’s defense, he’s only echoing the fundamentally flawed view of so-called “consumer advocacy” groups. They are in near-universal agreement that if we only had more regulations on farms and food processing plants — and vastly more federal inspectors to enforce them — natural nasties like E. coli and Salmonella would vanish from our food supply.

Last September, all of the major “consumer groups” signed a letter to the FDA under the banner of the “Safe Food Coalition” urging “more stringent regulations” on farms and food processing plants as well as “mandatory regulations requiring…strict sanitation levels and appropriate processing standards.” They also urged an increase in the number of FDA “field staff to ensure that its regulations can be fully enforced.”

While more regulations and farm inspections may sound eminently sensible in the face of the recent E. coli outbreaks, they would accomplish nothing.

Veggie bacterial outbreaks aren’t anything new, but we only began tracking them seriously in about 2000, when the FDA and Centers for Disease Control instituted mandatory reporting of certain key illnesses and began intensive trace-back investigations. Hence the apparent surge in outbreaks in recent years. Scientists also recently began using new “rapid” diagnostic tests for several pathogens that finally allow us to “see” and reliably trace bacteria that has been present in food supplies all along.

Another reason for the recent E. coli outbreaks is the increased popularity of pre-cut salad greens. These allow one contaminated head of lettuce or spinach to contaminate many bags or batches, greatly increasing the number of potential victims.

Increased inspections are pointless in this case. Unlike bacterial testing of fluid products such as milk, testing lettuce and leafy greens requires destroying the entire sample. Not finding E. coli in one bag does not in any way guarantee it isn’t in any other bag; and not finding E. coli in one head of lettuce does not mean that any particular bag will be safe.

If the problem were one of greedy farmers taking shortcuts or flouting good farming practices, more regulations and inspections of farms might improve food safety. But harmful bacteria literally surround us. There are countless unforeseen routes by which they can contaminate crops on even the most conscientiously managed farms, and it is futile to attempt to eliminate these routes by means of regulations and inspections.

The spinach outbreak last September is a perfect case in point. Government investigators traced the specific E. coli strain found in the bagged spinach to cattle on a pasture-based, grass-only beef ranch (not one of the “industrial feedlots” so demonized by activists) about a half-mile from the field where the tainted spinach was grown. They found matching E. coli in two samples taken from a feral pig killed on the ranch; they also found evidence that pigs had torn through fencing around the spinach fields or burrowed under it. State and federal investigators reasonably speculate that wild pigs spread the E. coli from the cattle pastures to the spinach fields.

Are the activists suggesting that farmers destroy crops whenever a hole is discovered in cattle fences a half-mile away? Are farmers supposed to install “coon cams,” with night-vision capability, to monitor their fields 24 hours a day?

Meanwhile, the activists campaign against the only proven method available to significantly improve food safety: cold pasteurization, also known as “irradiation.”

The science is clear:  Irradiation would have prevented or drastically reduced all of this fall’s E. coli outbreaks and would have saved lives. Irradiating pre-cut greens eliminates 99.999 percent of pathogens while prolonging shelf life. It is endorsed by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the CDC, the FDA, and dozens more independent food safety authorities. There is nothing stopping the FDA from issuing a partial ruling today allowing “cold pasteurization” of fruits and veggies to kill harmful bacteria. Yet the petition from a coalition of food companies to allow this process has now languished at the FDA for over six years.

There’s no doubt that consumer advocates are essentially responsible for that intolerable delay. They claim irradiation will only be used by Big Food as a Band-Aid for the much larger problem of poor sanitation in slaughterhouses and processing plants, which causes food-borne illness.

That’s like claiming we shouldn’t install seat belts and air bags in automobiles because they will only hide the problem of bad driving. Accidents happen, seat belts or not. No amount of regulations and inspectors could ever reduce the toll of food-borne illness as much as irradiation would.

Perhaps the “consumer advocates” are afraid of being “irradiated” out of the food-scare business.

– Alex Avery is director of research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues and author of The Truth About Organic Foods.

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