This week, Sabra’s “classic hummus” may have joined several Blue Bell ice cream products on the do-not-eat list. Both foods are contaminated with the sometimes-lethal infection bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. At least three people in the Midwest have died after eating Blue Bell products. Thus far, there are no known clinical cases related to Sabra, which reportedly recalled its products under an abundance of caution.
These foods join an ever-expanding list of foods and companies that inadvertently have served up bad food. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps a running tally of the various Listeria outbreaks recording a few per year with products ranging from sprouts to cheeses to cold cuts to who-knows-what.
(For those looking for a new type of diet, they also maintain an active log of food-borne outbreaks from Salmonella and “selected” E. coli outbreaks. You may never eat anything again—unless you boil the literal shit right out of it).
As the above suggests, Listeria is similar epidemiologically to Salmonella and E. coli, other common potentially lethal bacteria that contaminate food, result in recalls, and destroy companies. Though very different microbiologically, each causes intestinal infection and is spread by, well, shit.
Indeed, if one is in the mood to go there, a winning though paranoid argument is the following: there is shit everywhere—shit from chickens, shit from cows, shit from pigs. It’s in our food because of the way we slaughter animals; in our farm fresh eggs because, well it’s there because chickens shit all over their eggs; and in our milk because there is shit in unpasteurized milk (ever milk a cow, sir?). Furthermore because shit is used for fertilizer and because shit is in sewage—which often sits near or on various crops—it’s in our vegetables too. Excrement ubique est.
Which is OK most of the time. With Listeria, most everyone can eat a mouthful, get a stomachache, maybe drag around a day or two and then get over it. The problem is that the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, and—oddly—pregnant women, can’t fight off the infection well. For them, ingestion of the bacteria can cause severe, even fatal infection.
According to the CDC, about 260 people a year die from overwhelming Listeria infection. In addition, pregnant women may go into premature labor and deliver a stillborn child. For the latter reason, the CDC, the Food Drug Administration (and everyone else) has a long list of foods to avoid while pregnant, ranging from bologna to raw sprouts to unpasteurized cheese, especially so-called “Mexican” soft cheeses that have caused many outbreaks in Southern California and elsewhere.
In contrast, Salmonella transmitted the same way kills about 380 people a year with almost 20,000 hospitalizations. It thrives in raw eggs and is responsible for the largest known ice cream-related outbreak yet recorded—224,000 cases, originating at Schwan’s ice cream factory in Minnesota 20 years ago.
At the heart of all of this is the tragic fact that that all of these deaths and hospitalizations can be prevented by the political will to allot resources to assure thoughtful oversight. As recently reported, however, the FDA remains underfunded and over-stretched, blamed for faulty supervision while at the same time being forced to beg tight-fisted congressmen for enough money to protect the public.
Their predicament is not new. The FDA was born more than 100 years ago; its first big battle was against Coca-Cola—though not over its use of cocaine (which previously had been removed), but for its hyperdoses of a different addictive drug, caffeine. In the case, United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, the FDA lost the battle but won the war—Coca-Cola agreed to tone down the caffeine and the FDA agreed to quit raiding trucks transporting barrels of Coca-Cola.
The resistance then was the same as now, as the agonizingly slow process of bringing tobacco under FDA surveillance demonstrated. Producers declaimed the misery brought down upon them by meddlesome regulators who didn’t understand the facts—always an emotionally pleasing plaint and one milked every day by libertarians and contrarians. Nothing grabs the gut more than the notion of too many feds poking their feds-y noses around and jacking up cost while creating paper work, ulcers. and nothing but trouble.
But of course society is structured not around the gut or the heart. It is an attempt to be rational—you know, the Magna Carta and all that. We are a country of laws like every other developed civilization and with laws comes, gag, regulation. When a suicidally depressed pilot kills himself and 150 others, the first question is how come there was no regulation to prevent it. We only hanker for a regulation when its absence harms us—never do we feel anything but pique all the rest of the time.
Therefore, the screeching temper tantrums of adolescence play very well. No one wants to hear about rules and more rules. LEAVE ME ALONE works much better. But adults know, allegedly, that sometimes rules that are uncomfortable right this second are necessary to hold the entire place together. Remember delayed gratification. Public good? Larger interests?
The challenge ahead is simple—will Big Beef and Big Chicken and Big Hot Dog and Big Hummus, cheered on by the anti-regulation mob, again succeed is kicking the legs out from under the FDA and leave the food chain unsafe at any speed or will calm and probity descend on Washington.
Um – for now, it might be better to avoid to just stick with well-boiled food.