Reasons behind the recalls
April 15, 2009 11:45 p.m.
She cited the increase in the size and production of large-scale farms, the reduction of surveillance and inspection, and the wage reductions for farm workers as key factors in why recalls occur.
Hecht also said that farm food production has begun to mimic fast food production by being highly structuralized and identical; just as a McDonald’s Happy Meal in Kansas tastes the same way it does in California, so too are tomatoes and cucumbers from different parts of the country beginning to get mass-produced to a norm, she noted.
“It’s a rational model in terms of productivity and rates of return, but not great in terms of food quality, environmental quality (and) labor returns,” Hecht said. “And that’s why you pay very little for 2,000 calories.”
These factors have led to farms being less accountable and more likely to err and release contaminated food, Hecht said.
“What’s amazing to me is that more people don’t get sick,” she said.
But farms enforce controls to ensure that potentially contaminated products do not reach markets, said Linda Taylor, a food safety microbiologist at UC Davis.
“In most cases, one tries to avoid recalls so you would have all the right controls in place; you deal with pathogens right,” Taylor said. “And if you’re doing follow-up testing, ideally you have the results from the test before the product goes to marketplace.”
The internationally recognized approach to food safety involves looking at every step of the production process to determine potential risks and analyze how to control them, Taylor said.
Some controls against pathogens include pasteurization (in the case of milk) and end-product testing, she added.
Food on farms can get contaminated in several different ways that all involve its proximity to animals, said Christopher Chang,Â a visiting assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics and the associate director of GI Motility at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
“Most of the diseases in us are carried by domesticated animals,” Chang said.
This is due to the fact that farm animals, just like any other animals, contain various bacteria that live within them in harmony, which the digestive and immune systems of humans can regulate when eaten.
However, certain pathogenic bacteria that live inside animals, such as salmonella and E. coli, can have violent and devastating reactions when they come in contact with humans, said Minghsun Liu, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and on the staff of the Infectious Diseases Division at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
Human responses to these bacteria vary significantly, Liu said, adding that with E. coli, for example, patients experience a loss of fluids and blood, as well as potential kidney failure that can cause death.
But the bacteria is not attempting to kill their host, Liu said.
“If you look at most pathogenic bacteria, their interest is to grow and multiply in number,” Liu said. “The ultimate goal is multiplication for their strain.”
Non-meat products can get contaminated with these animal-hosted bacteria in a variety of ways, Chang said.
For example, the recalled pistachios were contaminated before their harvest by excrement from grazing cows that contained salmonella. These nuts came into contact with pistachios that were roasted, clear of any pathogenic germs, and subsequently cross-contaminated them, Chang said.
“It’s what would happen if you cook a chicken but put it on the same wash basin as a raw chicken,” Chang said.
He added that the peanut recall had more to do with negligence and unsanitary facility conditions on the part of the manufacturer.
Other ways that a non-meat food item can get contaminated by animal droppings include the use of manure as fertilizer and excrement getting mixed into the water system from rainfall, Liu and Chang both said.
So what’s the root cause of tainted food reaching plates and stomachs?
Basic human error, Taylor said.
“A number of scenarios can take place: ignorance, mistakes with no malicious intent, not recognizing that something is a hazard,” Taylor said.
She said that an effective surveillance system coupled with heightened awareness and education about potentially dangerous bacteria would help the food industry address this problem.
“It’s learning about new risks, how to control those risks, and then applying that universally,” Taylor said.
Hecht agreed, saying that the voluntary-only inspections in place now need reform.
She added that the consumer could help dictate the economics of the situation by purchasing food from farmer’s markets and locally grown small-scale producers.
“I worried about spinach at the store (after its 2007 recall), but I didn’t worry about spinach at the street market,” Hecht said. “It’s not all giant producers; farms are pretty differentiated.”
But Taylor emphasized that food produced in large plants can be trusted.
“An important message is that one doesn’t need to approach the grocery store with fear and trepidation,” she said, adding that by following proper hygienic and sanitary practices with food and in the kitchen, consumers can control much of the risk.
“From a consumer standpoint, I’m going to control what I can control,” she said. “(Because) for the most part, most people do not experience a negative consequence of food.”