Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go to the Salad Bar ...

In theory, your lunch is soon to be a little safer . In part as a response to Harvard Public Health Review editor Madeline Drexler's devastating food-safety critique in the latest issue of Good Housekeeping, the USDA just announced it would designate all "Big Six" strains of E. coli as "adulterants" -- previously, only one E. coli strain was counted as dangerous. That means food producers are supposed to test for and eliminate them in their products. Drexler's piece opened with the heartbreaking death of a healthy child from an E. coli O111 infection, a strain hitherto permissible in the food supply. As the child's mother said, "I feel like my kid was murdered." Declaring a potentially deadly bacterium an impermissible "adulterant" was long pushed for by consumer groups and legislators, and strongly recommended in the article.

Drexler's 2003 book Secret Agents, recently updated and reissued as "Emerging Epidemics: The Menace of New Infections," stopped me from ever eating raw bean sprouts, unwashed vegetables, or anything undercooked, and turned me into a crazy person about keeping my eight-year-old away from touching plates that have touched uncooked hot dogs, hamburger, or chicken. (Disclosure: Drexler is a close friend and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, as am I.) I'm not easy to scare, but all those dead-child stories got to me.

One of the book's takeaways is that foodborne illness is not a "natural" problem. Mass-market production and distribution -- as well as ineffective government oversight -- are what causes outbreaks. Nor is it solved by sticking with expensive foods labeled "organic," "natural," or "local." (Beware food marketing. More on this in months to come.) Drexler explains:

As many as 15 different federal agencies have a role in keeping the nation's food safe. But the lion's share of the responsibility goes to the USDA and the FDA. That seems simple -- until you learn how it plays out. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is required to inspect all cattle, sheep, swine, poultry, and other animals during slaughtering and processing. By law, at least one federal inspector must be present at least once each shift whenever a slaughterhouse is operating. The FDA covers virtually all other foods, including milk and other dairy products, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and most processed foods. It also ensures the safety of imported foods (except meat and poultry).

Here's how wacky this division of oversight gets: The USDA regulates chickens, while the FDA oversees eggs (most of the time; see "Chicken & Egg: Who's in Charge?" on page 220). The USDA is responsible for cows, while the FDA is in charge of milk. Pepperoni pizza? That's the USDA. Cheese pizza? The FDA. The USDA oversees catfish; the FDA regulates tuna.

Among other recommended fixes: a single food oversight system with real enforcement power. Drexler quotes Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: "If all parents who prepare food for their children every single day understood that we are operating under laws written 100 years ago, they would be outraged that we haven't done more." So guess what forces oppose effective regulation of your food supply?

For those of you most interested in the policy issues, go straight to pages 5 and 6 of the piece online.

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