Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Food poisoning from food contaminated with microorganisms is very common: 76 million cases and 5,000 deaths annually in the United States, according to government figures.

A couple of recent outbreaks garnered a lot of attention. During the last two months, there have been three deaths and about 200 cases of illness from E. coli O157:H7 (traced to fresh, bagged spinach), and about 200 illnesses caused by Salmonella typhimurium. Federal officials investigating the spinach outbreak have narrowed their search to a handful of ranches in California’s Salinas Valley and appear to focus on wild hogs as the cause of contamination. The source of the Salmonella contamination is as yet unknown.

Americans wonder who will protect us from future outbreaks of contamination and food-borne illness.

First, it’s clear we can’t rely on growers of fresh produce to protect us 100 percent of the time. Modern farming operations — especially the larger ones — already employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food free of pathogens. And most often they work: Americans’ food is not only the least expensive but the safest in human history.

However, there is a limit to how safe we can make agriculture, given that it is an outdoor activity and subject to all manner of unpredictable challenges. If the goal is to make a field 100 percent safe from contamination, the guarantee would be to pave it over and build a parking lot on it. But we would only be trading very rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders.

It has also become painfully clear we can’t rely on processors to always remove the pathogens from food. This most recent outbreak of illness demonstrated that our faith in processor labels such as “triple washed” and “ready to eat” must be tempered with at least a little skepticism. Processors were quick to proclaim the cleanliness of their own operations and deflect blame toward growers. But all those in the food chain share responsibility for food safety and quality.

In fairness to processors, there is ample evidence to suggest no amount of washing will rid all pathogens from produce: The contamination may occur not on the plant, but in it. Exposure to E. coli or other microorganisms at key stages of growth process may allow them to be taken into the plant and actually incorporated into cells.

Citing this, advocates of food irradiation have stepped forward to claim their technology can provide the assurance consumers demand and deserve. To be sure, irradiation is an important tool to promote food safety and is vastly underused, largely due to opposition from the organic food lobby and government overregulation.

But irradiation is no panacea. Although it quite neatly kills the bacteria, it does not inactivate the potent toxins secreted by certain bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium botulinum. This is a distinction you would keenly appreciate should you become infected.

So, if consumers can’t be protected by growers or processors or even irradiation, what can protect them?

There is technology available today that can inhibit microorganisms’ ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. This same technology can be used to produce antibodies that can be administered to infected patients to neutralize the toxins, and can even be used to produce therapeutic proteins that are safe and effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.

But don’t expect your favorite organic producer to embrace this triple-threat technology, even if it would keep his customers from getting sick. Why? The technology in question is biotechnology, or gene-splicing — an advance the organic lobby has vilified and rejected at every turn.

For organic marketers, the irony is more bitter than fresh-picked radicchio. The technology that affords them the best method of safeguarding their customers is the one they’ve fought hardest to forestall and confound.

Perhaps in the wake of at least three deaths and 400 illnesses from the recent E. coli and S. typhimurium outbreaks, the organic lobby will rethink its opposition to biotechnology. Perhaps it will undertake a meaningful examination of the ways in which this technology can save lives and advance their industry.

I’m not betting the farm on it. After all, admitting you’re wrong is hard. Blaming others is easy.

Henry I. Miller is a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution. Barron’s chose his most recent book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” one of the 25 Best Books of 2004. He headed the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993.

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