Food-Borne Diseases and Recalls Rising

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William Marler, a Seattle lawyer and food safety expert, testified before the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to discuss why illnesses resulting from E. coli O157:H7 bacteria soared in 2007. The panel believes that the last time any significant positive changes occurred in this area was at the beginning of the decade. These illnesses, which resulted in some deaths, were a major factor in the decision to recall millions of pounds of ground beef last year. Central to Marler's testimony is that recalls and illnesses increased substantially in the latter half of 2007, and were greater than any year since 2000. In part, the findings show:

  • 2006 - Eight recalls of 156,235 pounds of ground beef

  • 2007 - Twenty-one recalls of over 30 million pounds of ground beef

Marler also concurred with the panel that the low amount of illnesses and recalls from 1994 to 2004 was "too good to be true."

Theories About Food-Born Illnesses Rise

Marler stated several theories of why there was such a massive increase in the number of illnesses and recalls, including:

  • Better Reporting - More doctors may be able to recognize the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, which lead to detecting outbreaks and forcing recalls.

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  • Complacency - Marler wonders if meat processors may have "slacked off" causing them to be less likely to detect tainted beef.

  • Global Warming - The dry weather of the Southwest and Southeast may have caused windblown fecal dust to waft through beef-slaughtering plants. Excessive rainfall in other regions may have led to muddy holding pens where E. coli is more likely to thrive.

Three other theories Marler put forward that seem unlikely, but are worth noting, include high oil prices, the heavy-handed governmental crackdown on illegal immigration, and the "Darwinian explanation."

Other Pathogens

While E. coli is one of the most popular bacterial agents to find its way into the media spotlight, Marler also mentioned salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, and shigella. The nation has seen outbreaks of each of these illnesses, but it is E. coli that sickened and killed many people who consumed tainted spinach at the beginning of 2007, and helped to bring down food producer Topps. However, while it is E. coli O157:H7 that is primarily serotype to blame, Marler states that other non-O157 toxins are just as deadly, specifically O26, O103, O111, and O145.

While these letters and numbers may mean nothing to the average consumer, the implication is that there is more than one kind of E. coli that may rise in the future to harm and kill people. Because the very young and elderly are more susceptible to illness, this should give us pause and lead us to ask the question, why does this continue to happen if there are supposed to be definitive ways in which our food is kept safe? Food poisoning affects people in different ways, but those who have seen their children hooked up to kidney dialysis, or have lost family members deserve answers.

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