January 1, 2007 (Vol. 27, No. 1)
Henry I. I. Miller, M.D. Physician and fellow Stanford University
During the past several months, there have been two high-profile outbreaks of E. coli-related illnesses traced to spinach and lettuce, respectively. The current tally is three deaths and approximately 300 illnesses nationwide. These kinds of incidents are ordinarily investigated by the FDA and CDC, but for some reason—and in the absence of any hint of criminal behavior—the FBI also became involved in the spinach investigation.
If the G-Men intend to add food poisoning to their investigatory mandate, they’ll need a lot more agents. There are 76 million cases and 5,000 deaths annually in the United States caused by food contaminated with microorganisms, according to government figures. Foodborne infections are most often caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli 0157:H7, and by caliciviruses, also known as the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses.
Federal officials investigating the spinach outbreak have been able to narrow their search to a handful of ranches in California’s Salinas Valley and appear to be focusing on wild hogs as the cause of contamination. (In this article, rest assured that there will be absolutely no puns about the pigs chasing the hogs.)
The outbreak seems to be over and Popeye’s favorite food is now back on store shelves and restaurant menus. But, will consumers buy it? Americans may want their spinach back, but they also want an answer to an important question: On whom can we rely to protect us from future outbreaks of contamination and food-borne illness?
First, it is clear that we can’t rely on growers of fresh produce to protect us 100% of the time. Modern farming operations, especially the larger ones, already employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food free of pathogens. Most often they work; Americans’ food is not only the least expensive, it’s also the safest in the history of humankind.
In any case, the vast majority of cases of food poisoning result from consumers’ improper handling of food—in particular, inadequately cooking chicken or permitting the juices from raw chicken to contaminate other foods.
Making Agriculture Safe
There is a limit to how safe we can make agriculture, given that it is an outdoor activity and subject to all manner of unpredictable challenges. If the goal is to make a field 100% safe from contamination, the only definitive solution is to pave it over and build a parking lot on it. But, we’d only be trading rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders.
It has also become painfully clear that we can’t rely on processors to remove the pathogens from food in every case. The recent spinach-based outbreak of illness demonstrated that our faith in processor labels, such as “triple washed” and “ready to eat,” must be tempered with at least a little skepticism. Processors were quick to proclaim the cleanliness of their own operations and deflect blame toward growers. But, all of those in the food chain share responsibility for food safety and quality.
In fairness to processors, there is ample evidence to suggest that no amount of washing will rid all pathogens from produce. The reason is that the contamination may occur not on the plant, but in it. Exposure to E. coli or other microorganisms at key stages of the growing process may allow them to be taken into the plant’s vascular system.
Citing this, advocates of food irradiation have stepped forward to claim that their technology can provide the assurance consumers demand and deserve. To be sure, irradiation is an important tool to promote food safety and is vastly under-used, largely due to opposition from the organic food lobby and to government over-regulation.
But irradiation is no panacea. Although it quite effectively kills the bacteria, it does not inactivate the potent toxins secreted by certain bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium botulinum. The toxins can cause serious illness or death even in the absence of the bacteria—a distinction certain to be appreciated by anyone who ingests food contaminated with them.
So, if consumers can’t be protected by growers or processors or even irradiation, what can protect them?
There is technology available today that can inhibit microorganisms’ ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. This same technology can be employed to produce antibodies that can be administered to infected patients to neutralize the toxins and can even be used to produce therapeutic proteins (such as lactoferrin and lysozyme) that are safe and effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.
But don’t expect your favorite organic producer to embrace this triple-threat technology, even if it would keep his customers from getting sick. Why? The technology in question is recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing—an advance the organic lobby has vilified and rejected at every turn.
For organic marketers, the irony is more bitter than fresh-picked radicchio. The technology that affords them the best method of safeguarding their customers is the one they’ve fought hardest to forestall and confound.
Perhaps in the wake of at least three deaths and about 300 illnesses from the recent E. coli contamination of spinach and Taco Bell lettuce (and also one outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium), the organic lobby will rethink its opposition to biotechnology. Perhaps they will undertake a meaningful examination of the ways in which this technology can save lives and advance their industry. Perhaps they will permit common decency to trump ideology.
I’m not betting the farm on it. After all, admitting you’re wrong is hard. Blaming others is easy.