Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Cookie Crisis: Toxic Food Environment or World Food Shortage

One by one, the foods that seem most American are turning out to cause illness.  Last year, people got sick from Salmonella St. Paul in fast-food tacos (the jalapeño peppers were contaminated) and then others from Salmonella typhimurium in peanut butter (back in 2006-7 there had also been an outbreak of salmonellosis associated with eating peanut butter).

And now it’s Toll House chocolate chip cookies.  The dough has been recalled by Nestlé because some batches contain E. coli O157:H7, a potentially dangerous strain, with at least 66 cases in 28 states.  There have been 7 severe cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome, although no deaths.

At the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food safety lawyer Sarah Klein says “If there was anyone left in America who didn’t realize we need to reform the food safety functions at the Food and Drug Administration, this latest recall of Nestle Toll House Cookie Dough provides a sobering wakeup call,” telling the NY Times that “If there was ever any doubt that we’ve reached a crisis, this should provide the proof.”

But crisis of what?  The FDA itself isn’t sure how the bacteria got into the dough, and CDC is still investigating. What are we supposed to wake up to?  Is it toxicity?

According to research recently reported in the Milbank Quarterly, the metaphor that Americans most commonly hold responsible for obesity is a toxic food environment. — over 75 percent of respondents subscribed to this view of the obesity epidemic.

With foodborne disease, it isn’t obesity that’s at stake, but it seems that the same view of American eating shapes responses.  That the foods recently associated with bacterial outbreaks are so quintessentially American helps.  So does awareness of the tortuous journey that many foods take to market now, which is what makes it hard to know exactly how, where, and when contamination might occur.

But surely the U.S. doesn’t face a food crisis of the sort that the impoverished countries of the world do — a crisis of environmental change, political struggles over land use, access to clean water, and food shortage for a billion people worldwide.

Americans generally manage not to talk about the lives of people for whom food crisis means dirty water and the questionable availability of cassava flour or cornmeal mush, but are pleased that our own food crisis does not involve such deprivation.

At the same time, a lot of people here feel suspicious of the technical apparatus that has afforded us our cornucopia.  They are suspicious of the ways Americans (or most Americans) have access to the modern groaning board without our having to hunt, scrape the soil, haul water, or collect firewood – just park the car, enter the store, and take out cash or a debit card.  It seems too easy.  It isn’t traditional, natural, organic.

The occasional news story on food contamination validates those concerns, tells anxious people that they were right to be suspicious – that American food producers are poisoning us all.

To say that an event (cookie-related or other) is a wake-up call is to demand surveillance and control.  It says that someone has done something wrong (CSPI doesn’t need to tell us who that is – they mean the usual suspect:  big business, aided by lax government).

If someone has done something wrong, then surveillance – better food-plant inspection, for instance – and control will fix the problem.  But the wake-up call doesn’t really wake anyone up to the larger problem, or its nuances.

We’d like everyone worldwide to have enough to eat.  And not just enough rice or roots – we’d like everyone to be able to eat a diverse and nutritious diet.  We’d also like to be able to have chocolate chip cookies and other tasty processed food, at least from time to time.  We’d like all that to happen with a minimum of suffering caused by the food itself.  It’s unreasonable to think that nobody will ever get sick from contaminated food — but we’d like foodborne disease to be limited.

The technology and the transportation know-how exist to make that future possible.  But people concerned about food content, food safety, and food plenty have barely started the sort of conversation that would allow all the many pieces to be fit together globally.  The way to make such a vision of food adequacy and diversity possible still isn’t clear.  To argue for better surveillance and oversight of American food production is fine – but it doesn’t move us far along the road to solving the larger food crisis.  It’s going to take more than FDA inspection to get us there.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, June 20th, 2009 at 3:58 pm and is filed under Disease, epidemics, News, Outbreaks, public health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.