By Jane Hoback
Denver Post reporters Jennifer Brown and Mike Booth had been working on stories for months about the 2011 listeria outbreak in Colorado-grown cantaloupe that killed 33 people. The more questions they asked, the more troubling they found the problems: widespread contamination of not only fruit, but also vegetables, meat and poultry; irresponsibility on the part of food companies; lack of oversight from a jumble of government agencies charged with regulating the nation’s food supply.
“I said to Mike, ‘We’ve written so many stories about this, we should write a book,’ ” says Brown, an investigative reporter at the Post. “I was half-kidding, but we realized there were more questions that needed to be answered and not a lot was out there yet.”
The result is “Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can’t Keep Your Food Safe…And How You Can.”
The book provides an in-depth and detailed analysis of the systemic problems in the nation’s food system and offers advice on what consumers can do to shop for and prepare food safety.
The cantaloupe food poisoning was the deadliest in recent history, but it was far from an isolated case. Large-scale outbreaks of E.coli found in packaged spinach, and salmonella in peanut butter, ground turkey and chicken are only a few of the more notorious cases.
That stomach bug you had last week more than likely was caused by something you ate. One in six people will get food poisoning this year. That’s 50 million people. Of those, 100,000 will go to the hospital and 3,000 will die.
The authors’ work on the cantaloupe story raised a surprising issue that goes to the heart of food safety in the U.S. They asked the owners of Jensen Farms, the site of the listeria outbreak, when the farm had last been inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. The answer: never.
Despite passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, which gives the FDA new authority to regulate the food supply, the law remains largely underfunded because of inaction by Congress.
As a result, “the system still relies on the fox guarding the hen house,” says Booth, who was the lead health care writer for the Post and is now managing editor of the Colorado Health Foundation’s magazine, Health Elevations.
Instead of federal inspectors, food companies hire third-party auditors to conduct inspections and testing.
“Their incentive to speak up, to say there’s something wrong and to demand it gets corrected just doesn’t exist,” Booth says.
The new stricter regulations would help, but “if you can’t fund the rules, it doesn’t matter if those rules are written or not.”
Still, not all the problems can be blamed on lack of funding.
“We are selling chicken that goes all over the country that’s contaminated,” Booth says. “Whenever consumer groups test raw chicken or raw poultry, they find anywhere from a quarter to a half of it is contaminated. And it’s your job to cook it out,” because selling contaminated chicken is not illegal.
It’s a problem that promises to get worse because of the growing number of cases of antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella. The Centers for Disease Control and other groups have linked the practice of treating animals with antibiotics to antibiotic resistance in humans. “Now all these superstrains of bugs are showing up in hospitals and they can’t kill them because antibiotics don’t work anymore,” Booth says.
Prosecution of companies that sell contaminated food is rare. Lawsuits by consumer watchdog groups against government agencies and private lawsuits seeking compensation for victims can force changes, though as Brown points out, “the sad thing is it’s after people have died.” Settlements often are kept confidential. Lawyers representing food safety advocates often argue that if companies would invest their money on safety protocols rather than spend it on lawsuits, “that could change a lot,” Brown says.
Although some companies insist there’s little they can do or the cost is too high, others have made significant changes. After its major recall of packaged spinach contaminated with E. coli in 2006, Earthbound Farms completely revamped its food safety practices. Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. invested $1 billion to improve its food safety system and develop a device that destroys salmonella in the poultry after recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey.
The authors say agencies such as the CDC and the Colorado Health Department are becoming more efficient and faster at identifying the sources of contamination, which can help contain outbreaks.
The public spotlight on these contamination outbreaks has no doubt spurred changes in how people shop and how they prepare food. In the second part of their book, Brown and Booth offer practical advice on what they call “defensive eating” — what to avoid and what to do to protect yourself. Tips include everything from using separate grocery bags for produce and raw meat and scrubbing all vegetables and fruit – even bananas – to reorganizing your refrigerator so meat goes on the bottom shelf, cooking meat thoroughly and always using a meat thermometer to check temperature.
In addition to learning how to protect themselves at home, consumers also are becoming more aware of the power they have to demand changes.
“We went through a phase where we were pretty neurotic,” Brown says with a laugh. “There were a good two or three months when I didn’t know what to eat. I was afraid of everything.
“I was a vegetarian for a long time, but I would eat fish and chicken sometimes. Then we started reporting all this stuff about chicken and how it’s actually scarier than beef in a lot of ways.”
So she and her neighbor bought part of a cow. “I thought, well at least I know it’s only one cow.”
Booth’s daughter persuaded him to use reusable grocery bags, but now he throws them in the washing machine regularly. He uses a meat thermometer, though he admits “not every single time.”
He and Brown worked on the book in between juggling demanding full-time jobs and family responsibilities, often breaking out the laptops on nights and weekends to meet deadlines.
“It was pretty hellacious,” Brown says. “But after an excerpt from the book came out, we got a letter from someone whose wife had died from the cantaloupe outbreak. He said, ‘I am so happy you are writing this book. It’s such an important topic and more people need to know about it so that there’s political change but also so people can protect themselves.’ ”