so put away that meat you're selling
October 11, 2016 1:10 PM   Subscribe

"Millions of containers, thousands of ships, hundreds of scientists, 30 laws, 15 federal agencies, and we still can't prevent the next foodborne illness outbreak."

[Fun supplementary reading: FDA Defect Levels Handbook, FSIS Meat & Poultry Hazards & Controls Guide, CDC Foodborne Outbreak Investigations.]
posted by amnesia and magnets (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Writing from within this field, I'd argue that this is why we can't (yet) prevent the next outbreak. We have an excellent regulatory structure, but nowhere near the number of inspectors and inspection points needed to keep crises from developing. We do a good job of containing the ones that do happen, but we've still a way to go before prevention is the absolute norm. For all the talk of overreaching regulation that politicians use as grist for the re-election mill, we're far from a science-directed society (because that would take a bigger, costlier commitment to enforcing and critically evaluating the regulations that already exist, to say nothing of the regulations that would serve us even better if the political will existed to make such things come to pass). Even domestically, using the USDA as an example, we have about 120 inspectors tasked with oversight of more than 7,000 facilities nationwide. You do the math / accounting / auditing.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:32 PM on October 11, 2016 [19 favorites]


(SPOILER ALERT)
posted by hal9k at 1:36 PM on October 11, 2016 [14 favorites]


"We still can't prevent the next foodborne illness outbreak" is a tautology (unless we never have another one).

How many illness outbreaks have we prevented? We can't know, because they didn't happen. Eventually one will get through, and then we can shake our heads and talk about how we didn't prevent this one.

It's like the statement: "Why is it that something is always in the last place you look?" It's because when you find it you stop looking. Whether it was after 30 seconds or 10 years of searching, once you find it you stop looking, so it has to be in the last place you looked.

The only reasonable way to evaluate this situation with food illness outbreaks is to measure the rate per million people per year over history, and when you look at it that way, our food supply is vastly safer now than it was a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago.

They still happen; the system isn't perfect. But it's very, very good.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:53 PM on October 11, 2016 [9 favorites]


I appreciate the Fiona Apple deep-cut lyrical reference in the title.
posted by wreckingball at 2:30 PM on October 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


It's a shame fffm's left the site, for they always had good food safety thoughts.
posted by scruss at 2:54 PM on October 11, 2016 [9 favorites]


we have about 120 inspectors tasked with oversight of more than 7,000 facilities nationwide. You do the math / accounting / auditing.

And we have a million liability lawyers salivating at the possibility of suing each and every such facility if it is complicit in an outbreak of food borne illness. That represents a tremendous deterrent.

Those facilities all know what will happen to them (getting their asses sued off) if they're careless, and they do a lot of self-policing.

I'm not saying the system can't be improved, or that we should be complacent. I am saying that we are not facing a crisis and there's no cause for panic.

There are cases of widespread contamination. In particular, the entire poultry industry in New England is thoroughly contaminated with salmonella, and there's nothing that can be done about it. It's been like that for decades, and the only real solution is for customers to make sure they thoroughly cook chicken meat and eggs before eating them.

But everyone knows that, and they do, so it isn't a problem.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:30 PM on October 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Not being able to eat raw egg for fear of salmonella is a problem. We've just normalized it.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:05 PM on October 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


I know from real life conversations that I'm an outlier, but every attempt to freak me out about food safety amazes me with how safe our food supply is.

Like most Americans I eat three meals a day. This is what, a billion meals a day for 365 days a year? 3000 people will die, which is horrible, but it's an order of magnitude less than car accidents or flu or most other things I don't worry about often. 48 million illnesses seems bad well under 1% are hospitalized; but I'm guessing that's around the common cold levels,

And this safety is despite the problems. We pay food prep types minimum wages and inspect restaurants with often unmotivated, low-prestige government bureaucrats. I don't soak my fresh vegetables in a light bleach to clean off E. coli or anything and if something falls on the floor I'll follow the three second rule. People follow horrible practices at home, sometimes because we're lazy or the advice is horrible (as in "Rinse your raw chicken under running water and spread salmonella droplets across your counter!").

So by all means tighten things up and manage people better but for the most it seems like you'd need a lot more resources to eke out relatively small safety gains.

Also from TFA:

those foods — which is to say fresh foods — are the very hardest to police, particularly when they come from overseas.

Makes sense, right? If you're really prioritizing safety eat more processed, packaged foods. This is almost literally a case of picking your poison.

ETA: The current front page post on soylent making people sick doesn't invalidate my packaged food line, although the timing is admittedly unfortunate.
posted by mark k at 11:01 PM on October 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


We've just normalized it.

And it's worth pointing out that it isn't normal. Europe cut salmonella drastically over ten years, from an already much lower incidence. But in the US, we shifted the responsibility to the consumer because it's not politically possible to challenge the industry.

I think it's appalling, personally.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:02 AM on October 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


In particular, the entire poultry industry in New England is thoroughly contaminated with salmonella, and there's nothing that can be done about it

Maybe there is some technicality I am missing, but it seems like there is something that can be done?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:23 AM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


The only reasonable way to evaluate this situation with food illness outbreaks is to measure the rate per million people per year over history, and when you look at it that way, our food supply is vastly safer now than it was a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago.

Epidemiology disagrees. Molecular and genetic tracking of pathogens with global, rapid reach let us know this. There are many approaches to evaluate this situation reasonably, not just what you suggest.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:10 AM on October 12, 2016


Seconding Mark K's comment.
Also urging folks to cook their own meals from food grown locally. It really helps to know your farmer.
Or to be one.
Then your well being is your responsibility and not the bureaucracy's.
posted by Mesaverdian at 2:22 PM on October 12, 2016


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