Our modern hyper-efficient means of producing, processing and distributing food has made hunger virtually extinct in the developed world. (In fact obesity is a much more pressing problem.) But our modern food production network is revealing an increasingly dangerous cost. Because food from any one farm or any one plant is frequently distributed nationally or even internationally, contamination with a foodborne infection can sicken thousands before the source is identified.

Two years ago Escherichia coli from contaminated spinach caused a nationwide outbreak. This spring and summer an outbreak of Salmonella traced to contaminated peppers imported from Mexico led to over 200 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. Most recently, in an outbreak that is still ongoing and is receiving heavy media coverage, Salmonella linked to contaminated peanut butter and peanut paste has caused hundreds of hospitalizations and at least 8 deaths.

A perspective article in the New England Journal of Medicine attempts to propose sensible solutions to an increasingly dangerous, expensive, and frequently lethal problem. The author is dismissive of organic back-to-nature fantasies:

To those who believe that the solution is a return to a pastoral, early-20th-century model with millions of small farms producing more “natural” food, I would point out that even if the millions of farm workers who would be required were available to produce food on a quasi-boutique scale, the costs would be enormous; it would be impossible to feed 300 million Americans, let alone the rest of the world. Efficient, industrialized production of huge quantities of food is an inescapable necessity to avoid food shortages and global famine. The challenge is to enhance the quality and safety of industrially produced food.

Instead he proposes improved inspections, information technology for foodborne infection reporting to allow rapid identification of an outbreak, and bar-coding of perishable foods so that the farms and factories that grew and processed the food are immediately identifiable.

He also recommends an idea that I wrote about last summer which would prevent up to a million cases of foodborne illnesses in North America annually. All high-risk food should be irradiated. The only obstacle preventing this is widespread public misunderstanding and fear of irradiation.

Learn more:

Track the latest recalled products on the US FDA Salmonella page

Associated Press article: Texas recalls all items from plant over salmonella

New England Journal of Medicine article: Coming to Grips with Foodborne Infection — Peanut Butter, Peppers, and Nationwide Salmonella Outbreaks

My previous post on food irradiation: Gamma Rays are Good for Your Veggies

Tangential miscellany:

Two extraordinary men were born 200 years ago yesterday. One was Abraham Lincoln. If you haven’t read it recently, take this opportunity to read the Gettysburg Address.

The other man was Charles Darwin. I’ll close with a quote from the last page of his landmark work On the Origin of Species which was published in 1859.

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us… Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life… that … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.