I have to say that it only took a year full of various e.coli outbreaks, spinach recalls, and a handful of other food safety news stories to make me feel resigned to the state of our food culture. There’s only so much bad news and unfortunate circumstances that one can take before these episodes become less of a news story and more of a common fact of life.
As the pet food story evolved from the recalls of the various pet foods to the discovery that the chemical Melamine had been used and is the root cause of the way too many animal deaths, I mentioned in passing to a friend that the odds of this chemical being fed to our food sources was an even money bet. I had hoped that it wouldn’t be so, but when my prediction turned out to be true, I wasn’t surprised.
Like a child who grows jaded upon learning the truth behind Santa Claus, so too becomes a person who hears repeated stories of the failures of an industry who’s primary purpose is to maintain the health and well-being of their consumers. At some point news reports of these types stop being the exception and instead become the rule.
Part of this cynicism sits at the feet of the instant news culture. Out of all of the news reports surrounding the Salmonella outbreaks last year, or the various E.Coli reports this year, very few outlets highlighted the fact that a typical American’s chance of catching these diseases from the products in question was practically zero. But this fact doesn’t sell newspapers or bring people to websites. However, the amount of people who were or could be affected by these diseases was only one of the messages meant to be heard. It’s the unintentional subtext to all of these stories that gets us riled up…
…that our quest for cheaper food is putting us at greater health risks.
The problem is that these two points are directly contradictory to one another. If it was unlikely, to a tune of almost zero percent probability, that we could get salmonella or E.Coli, how is our health at greater risk? The answer depends upon one’s perspective.
Some would argue that x amount of deaths versus y amount of illnesses is an acceptable risk. When deaths and illnesses due to food is compared against traffic injuries and fatalities, it’s easy to draw this conclusion.
Others would argue that there’s little to no excuse for allowing preventable illnesses from entering the food supply. Would we pay an additional 5 cents to a quarter more per pound of ground beef, head of lettuce, or jar of peanut butter if it meant saving one life or preventing 200 people from getting ill?
And still others would claim that all of the free market checks and government regulation in the word cannot completely prevent a company from behaving badly and putting people at risk.
None of these perspectives are illogical to take. But each one becomes more and more tiresome either to hear or to espouse with each new story of failure of oversight someone’s loved ones (be they friends, family or pets) becoming ill. Instead, we become inured to the stories.
And as we hear of melamine being fed to farmed fish and workers who need new lungs due to a chemical used in artificial butter flavor, we give a quick thanks that these stories haven’t affected us directly and then move on to Iraq or the Alberto Gonzalez hearings.