Let's Ask Marion: Where's The Outcry Over Our Sickening Food Supply?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: The NY Times ran a story the other day exposing a stunning indifference on the part of public health officials in some states to outbreaks of life-threatening food-borne
illnesses. The article included some astounding statistics:

One-quarter of the nation's population is sickened every year by
contaminated food, 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die...

Presumably, if terrorists were poisoning our food supply and killing 5,000 Americans annually we'd be up in arms about it--if not dropping bombs. Where's the outrage?

Dr. Nestle: Outrage? There really isn't much but much can't be expected, urgent as it
may be. This, as I discuss in early chapters of my book, Safe Food, has to do with the way humans perceive risk. As far
as I can tell from the evidence, we are hard wired to be most frightened of food dangers that seem foreign, alien, technological, and under someone else's control. That's why it's pretty easy to generate fear and outrage about genetically modified foods, bovine growth hormone, irradiation, and bisphenol A, for example, but much harder to get people worked up about
microbial illness.

The CDC says Americans experience 76 million episodes of food poisoning a year, along with those 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Pretty much everyone has experienced foodborne illness and most of us survive to tell the tale. Such things may be unpleasant--sometimes VERY unpleasant--but they are familiar. And we share some of the responsibility:
if only we had washed our hands, not eaten that egg salad, cooked foods to the right temperature, and so forth. Much as we might like to, we can't blame faceless corporations like Monsanto for what we shouldn't have eaten last night.

Even so, it is beyond me why people aren't taking to the streets to complain about the lack of reliable food safety oversight. We could do so much better a job of ensuring safe food if we had better rules in place and an agency required, willing, and able to enforce those rules. As I wrote
recently in the San Francisco Chronicle
, we have two sets of bills before Congress
now, some aimed at fixing the FDA and some aimed at fixing the system. I think the entire system needs a fix but I will gladly settle for fixing the FDA if that's the best we can get right now. But nothing will happen without enormous public pressure. Outrage! We need you now!

Rather than government

Rather than government oversight expected to solve all our problems, wouldn't it be better to require home economics as a subject for all students in high school, since a lot of food-borne illness comes from cross-contamination from meat? Maybe have all college students take a basic microbiology course?
My friends from India do not eat raw greens at all because of the risk of illness. They do not ask their government to get rid of all microbes everywhere- that is impossible- they simply cook their greens. There are more bacteria in your intestines right now than there are human cells in your body. Add that to what lives on your skin, and all the surfaces in your home, and all the surfaces at the farm and market, and in the soil, and in the trunk of your car, or on the subway or bus, and you see how far your "outrage" will get you. Germs are literally everywhere. An increasing proportion of the population carries MRSA up their noses or on their skin with no ill effects. Should a government agency force us all to get our noses sterilized, so we will not sneeze MRSA at you?
My solution? Know your sources. Buy food from the same stores or farmer's markets, or farmers regularly, so if you get sick you can go to the person directly instead of filing interminable forms with a faceless government entity. And wash those hands and cooking surfaces.