Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Infection Connection: Foodborne Illness and the Importance of Food Safety

Food safetyMy friend Milwaukee Dan #1 recently posted an article on Facebook from the Chicago Tribune concerning a restaurateur in Chicago that was sending his employees outside to cook. Raw eggs were outside in high temperatures, mixing buckets were rinsed out with garden hoses, and the cooks mixed batter with their ungloved hands. The owner of the restaurant maintained that it was only temporary, but the health department was planning on investigating.

I think most of you are probably as grossed out right now as I was when I read the story. In my years in the laboratory, I witnessed quite a few outbreaks of foodborne illness, including Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, and E coli O157. I saw a case or two of Listeria, as well as a rare Yersinia case. That doesn’t count the toxin screens usually done by the State Board of Health that test for Staph aureus, Bacillus cereus, and botulinum toxins. Those are just the most common ones. Most of us have probably suffered through a bout of food poisoning at some point in our lives; it’s not uncommon, and most of the time it is self-limiting and we can fight it off after a few days of misery.

However, severe outbreaks can tax the resources of local, county, and state labs, as well as resulting in hospitalization for those most affected. The CDC estimates that “each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.” Some of the symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and some bacteria (E coli O157) can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which kidney failure occurs and can cause a lifetime dependence on dialysis.

The very young, the elderly, and the immunocompromised can be devastated by such illnesses, and complications can include septicemia (when the organism gets into the bloodstream), endotoxic shock, and massive organ failure.

Although dealing with each of these types of illnesses is too broad of a subject for one blog entry, I want to address a comment that Dan received after posting the Chicago Tribune story. (Yes, this is going to get political, but it is a point that needs to be made.) One of his more conservative friends made a sarcastic comment about how oh dear, someone was cooking good food outdoors for people to eat! When Dan mentioned the dangers of food poisoning, and I mentioned that as a microbiologist, I was appalled by what this restaurant owner was doing and that he either needs to take his operations inside or be shut down, the person wondered if there had been any complaints to the health department about this establishment, and that their own immune system was fine with it.

Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be surprised to see a picture of this person in a tricorner hat, drinking a big jug o’ tea. I pointed out that for those whose immune systems are compromised—people with cancer or diabetes—a bout of food poisoning can be a life-threatening situation.

I recently read a story about a teabagger gathering in which people were cooking and selling food without a permit. One defender of this practice said that if the vendor gives people food poisoning, he won’t be in business for long...the market will correct itself.

To me, this is every single damn thing that is wrong about these freakin’ teabaggers. I suppose that if a food vendor manages to kill a bunch of people because he sells tainted food, he probably would be put out of business. In the meantime, a whole bunch of people are still dead. If that’s what the market needs to do to correct itself, then I think that market needs a little more regulation. Not everyone is a healthy, hale adult whose immune system can fight off a bout of Salmonella; sometimes people who have underlying disease that leaves them vulnerable to infections ingest these bacteria, viruses, or toxins, and it can be devastating to their health. A pregnant woman who eats ice cream or a hot dog that is tainted with Listeria will often miscarry because Listeria can cross the placental barrier and will often kill the fetus.

Agar platesWhat really burns my bacon about those who think the government and the FDA should mind their own business and let the food market regulate itself is that they seem to have no concept or intellectual grasp of just how devastating these infections can be. As long as they’re strong and healthy and can fight off a bout of Shigella (although from talking to friends who have had Shigella, they won’t be quite so strong and healthy after that...one person told me that they were pretty sure they weren’t going to die, but they wanted to), they really don’t seem to give a flying fuck about anyone else, including kids, the elderly, and anyone who might not have the immune system of a superhero or a vampire.

We have an agency that is designed to protect the safety of our food, the FDA. It is not perfect, and there are still things that get by it. But we won’t get healthier by eating Salmonella-tainted eggs and spinach, or E coli-laden beef, or drinking unpasteurized milk contaminated with Campylobacter or Brucella. We’ll just get sick, resulting in lost productivity and in some cases, loss of life. We have the ability and technology to screen our food supply for these organisms, and we are healthier because of it. Challenging our immune systems by allowing all sorts of contaminants to enter our food supply is irresponsible and dangerous.

Anyone who thinks that the open market will correct such contamination problems, or that food vendors will police themselves, should probably take a look at what happened with Wall Street and our economy when regulation was eased. It may right itself eventually, but only after a lot of hurt, pain, and general misery. Perhaps they also might want to think about the greater good; although your portfolio might be robust, or you are in very good health, not everyone is that fortunate. What is so hard about watching out for the other guy, not just for yourself? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as a society?


  1. When I worked for a certain amusement park in their largest restaurant, we had to mix large amounts of lemonade in the morning. This required large amounts of water. We would load the glass containers onto a flatbed hand truck and take those puppies out to the loading dock. We would then add the requisite water from the hose there. Problem is that in wheeling it all back in, there were wheel tracks on the floor. If we knew the health department was due that day, we'd go back over the floor with a mop to erase the tracks.

    So yeah, I'm always a little nervous about dining out.

  2. Oh and I've had a nasty case of giardia in the past. I would not wish that upon anyone. I spent at least a week thinking that I was dying -- even after starting to take the heavy duty antibiotics.

  3. I'm very paranoid about bacteria in food...and now I have yet another reason to hate teabaggers.

  4. "What is so hard about watching out for the other guy, not just for yourself?"

    That pretty much sums it all up, doesn't it? I can't for the life of me figure out how these people can be so nonchalant about the lives of others.

  5. hmm... this entry somehow feeds into my trending thoughts.

    Business is an entity that by design takes advantage of any opportunity to increase profits. Without regulation to demand the minimum practices to look out for the consumer and public safety, which existed for most of the 19th century as industry became more mechanized, we'd be dealing with children being crushed to death and smokestacks clouding the skylines of our cities.

    It is too hard for some to comprehend that regulation not only protects but provides opportunity. The problem with industrial (including work done in the food chain) jobs is that many of them are being shipped out to countries with lax enforcement. I keep thinking of the disaster in Bhopal and wonder how many more plants that exist in the emerging world that are like that, poisoning the earth and leaving land unproductive?

    Any who... that is the kind of conversation that can only be had on the internet. People know better than to say that in public.

  6. This may be a bit pessimistic Beth, but I don't think most people have the ability to self correct, unless they are forced to by a person or governing entity. Look at all of the bad habits human beings have, all the destruction and waste we know we cause and our incapability to change those situations. People are more likely to shrug something off or to find a reason why they can't change. Teabaggers are one step further down the path. Most of them are just plain delusional.

  7. It is a shame about the dumbing down of our country, this is just another example.


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