The E. Coli outbreak doesn't surprise me

The E. Coli outbreak doesn't surprise me
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The news has been flooded recently with stories about contaminated food items, recalls and a host of infections we’re all at risk of getting. Two million eggs were pulled from shelves last week because of a salmonella outbreak, putting the country on edge over their favorite breakfast staple. Then this week an E. coli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce made headlines. As of now, this infectious outbreak has been isolated to 16 states across the country. Close to 60 people have become ill according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thankfully, as of today, there have been no fatalities.

As a practicing hepatologist in Houston, Texas, I care for patients with all facets of liver disease and digestive disorders. I love talking and writing about food, including the food that nourishes us, as well as the food that leads to obesity and all of its dreadful complications including diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver. 

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During these outbreaks that involve hundreds of people in multiple states, there is tremendous public outcry, questioning the safety of our food. On the front line is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A lot of people are questioning whether we should demand answers from the CDC on why romaine lettuce is making us sick, or why two million eggs had to be destroyed last week? My opinion, probably not.

 

From a personal and professional standpoint, I have the utmost respect for the men and women of the CDC, realizing that they are some of the brightest and most respected physicians, researchers and scientists found anywhere in the world. While they are a branch of the federal government and subject to bureaucracy and waste, they have the formidable task to keep our food safe and identify these outbreaks.

Our agricultural industry and the management of crops and livestock has become extremely complex. The local farm is near extinct.  More imported food products are coming into America from every corner of the globe. The immense infrastructure that is required to supervise farms throughout the world, monitoring everything from bacterial infections to excessive use of pesticides, is an absolutely overwhelming task. We have seen an explosion in the number of food products available to the consumer and America’s appetite for a wide variety of food seems never ending.

We want low-cost foods, available year-round. Between 1975 and 2008, the number of products in the average supermarket swelled from 8,948 to almost 47,000. This increase in product availability means there are more processed foods being sold, which are all subject to manipulation in one form or another. As the number of items increase, the demands on the CDC increase, rendering them incapable of overseeing this process, unless funding is proportionally increased.

Our demands for ready-made, easy to prepare, no clean-up food is also getting us in trouble. The romaine lettuce that seems to be the culprit in this latest outbreak includes prepackaged, chopped varieties. One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the number of bagged salad products available in your local grocery store.

Salad combinations of every type are available for the consumer, seeking convenient, ready to serve foods. All of these products are at risk for contamination due to the human and/or mechanical handling that is required to get them into a bag. The labels on the salad bags boast that they are “triple washed” and ready to serve.

They lure you into thinking that this is some sort of a sanitized food product. It is my gestalt that as we create more food items, especially the ready-made foods, we are further exposing ourselves to food-borne illnesses. During these outbreaks, the goal is to pinpoint the source of the infection. However, the bagged lettuce you bought because you didn’t want to chop a fresh head may be a mix of multiple heads of lettuce from multiple growers. Tracking the source is almost impossible.

It falls on consumers to take more responsibility for the food they are putting in their mouths. I, for one, am sickened by the thought that my fruit is flown in on a 747 jumbo-jet from South America, harvested on a farm 5,500 miles away. The opportunities for contamination are immense.  The CDC is doing their best to protect us.

From my perch in Texas, this is how I see these latest outbreaks. The checks and balances to keep contaminated fecal waste out of the food chain has been corrupted. Identifying the exact source of the outbreak is proving to be difficult and this may be due to the sheer size of the modern farming conglomerates.

The CDC is a world-renowned organization we should all be proud of  that may be stretched to their limits. Visit a Farmers Market this weekend. You’ll know the name of the farmer who grew your fruits and veggies by their first name.

Dr. Joe Galati is the president of Liver Specialists of Texas and author of the new book, Eating Yourself Sick-How to Prevent Obesity, Fatty Liver and Diabetes from Killing You and Your Family.