May 31, 2011
There is a new contagion spreading across Europe from Spain – not related to sovereign debt or tummy bugs, but rather, to the spread of hysteria about what we eat and feed our children. It is causing well-intentioned public officials to commit an outrageous sin: to start testing all types of food for E. coli.
In the late 1990s, there was a mishap that contaminated animal feed in Belgium with high levels of dioxins affecting food quality in chickens and eggs. This spiralled into a series of events that prompted the Belgian government to start testing all food for dioxins. Where there is smoke, there are dioxins, and soon almost all food was removed from the supermarket shelves in Belgium (much better advised regulators in Germany and France insisted that they did not have to test their food products). Finding dioxins in food does not mean anything on its own (the dose makes the poison … for guinea pigs); telling the public there are dioxins in their food leads to large-scale public panic. The only thing more frightening than dioxins in food is E. coli (especially with a name like: enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli), and both are terribly misunderstood.
E. coli is everywhere, taking many different strains and origins, leading to anything from mild digestive reactions to death (O157 is perhaps the worst common strain). All of us have significant amounts of types of E. coli bacteria in our guts at any time and most of us have built up a fairly strong resistance (to quote Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”). Millions have negative reactions from E. coli exposures every year and hundreds die (like influenza strains, they prey on the weaker parts of the population). When people die in clusters, E. coli, like influenza, attracts attention and raises public alarm. Such is the case in Germany, a country very skittish about the political consequences of public health crises. What we don’t need is for the German officials to now start testing all foods for E. coli bacteria, because if they do, guess what? Like dioxins, they will find it everywhere (including rivers). Soon we won’t know what to eat, every meal will frighten us, and although mortality statistics won’t change, we will lose further trust in our food chain.
The only saving grace here is that the cucumbers in question are organic. The environmental NGOs cannot use this as a means to rant on the industrialisation of the food chain and thus one of the chief escalators of public panic has been silenced. Let me tease the morally righteous campaigners by asking whether we should go back to wrapping cucumbers in plastic film. Maybe food packaging is not as evil as we have been told.
Remember that we are the risk managers, not the officials in the government (whom we rarely trust in any case). To avoid E. coli, wash your food thoroughly, cook your meat well, use only pasteurised dairy, and please wash your hands regularly with soap and water (especially if you come in contact with animals, uncooked meat or river water).David Zaruk