Can the feds combat the germs? Since the first reports of an outbreak of E. coli-related illnesses traced to fresh, bagged spinach, this deadly strain of bacteria has led to three deaths and approximately 200 illnesses nationwide. According to the federal government, food poisoning linked to these and other microorganisms afflict 76 million Americans and claim 5,000 lives.
This new biological enemy isn't linked to Al Queda. Yet, while cases of food poisoning normally fall within the province of the Food and Drug Administration and Center for Disease Control, these germs are now under investigation by the FBI.
With billions of germs lurking within our borders, the G-Men may need to add a few more agents.
Federal officials investigating the spinach outbreak have narrowed 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. The outbreak seems to be over and Popeye’s favorite food is making its way back onto 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’s clear we can’t rely on growers of fresh produce to protect us 100 percent of the time. Modern farming operations – especially the larger ones -- already employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food free of pathogens. And most often they work: Americans’ food is not only the least expensive, but also the safest, in the history of humankind.
However, 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 percent safe from contamination, the only solution that guarantees this is to pave it over and build a parking lot on it. But we’d only be trading very 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. This most recent 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 and actually incorporated into cells.
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 government over-regulation.
But irradiation is no panacea. Although it quite neatly kills the bacteria, it does not inactivate the potent toxins secreted by certain bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium botulinum. This is a distinction you’d keenly appreciate should you become infected.
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 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 biotechnology, 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 200 illnesses from the recent E. coli outbreak (and also one 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.
I’m not betting the farm on it. After all, admitting you’re wrong is hard. Blaming others is easy.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Barron’s selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.