Thursday, February 18, 2010

Scary Supermarket

Gram-pa Joe and Cousin Eddie prepare to mix the burger meat.

The grocery store can be a scary place. All the people, the carts, the huge amount of money your about to spend, closterphobia or the fear of running into someone you’d rather not are all reasons to fear the grocery store. Go ahead and add on pathogenic bacteria, viruses, prions and parasites as things to fear as they are in most cases the cause of food borne illnesses. Not necessarily in plain sight but improper food handling, preparation, storage or human hygiene are all ways these nasties can find their way into your cart. That’s not to mention the naturally occurring toxins that some plants, mushrooms and fish produce. Here are a few things you might bring home from the grocery store that are free, Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella, or the celebrity of food borne illness Escherichia coli o157:h7.

I’ll throw out a few stats:

Over a two year study it is estimated that for every 100,000 people in the U.S. there were 26,000 cases of food borne illnesses, or which 111 of those people needed hospitalization, and 2 out of every 100,000 people would die do to food borne illness. It’s estimated that in 1997 the financial cost of food borne illness in the U.S. reached over $35 billion in medical costs. Yearly estimations in the U.S. reach 76 million sick people, with another 2 million in the U.K. and 1 million in France. That means the number of food borne illness cases in these three countries alone account for nearly 1% of the world population.

During the year of 2008 The Food Safety and Inspection Service (a subset of the USDA) had approximately 7,800 inspection personnel working in nearly 6,200 federally inspected meat, poultry and processed egg establishments. FSIS is charged with administering and enforcing the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act, portions of the Agricultural Marketing Act, the Humane Slaughter Act. FSIS inspection program personnel inspect every animal before slaughter, and each carcass after slaughter to ensure public health requirements are met. In 2008, this included about 50 billion pounds of livestock carcasses, about 59 billion pounds of poultry carcasses, and about 4.3 billion pounds of processed egg products. At U.S. borders, they also inspected 3.3 billion pounds of imported meat and poultry products. That means every inspector is looking at over 1.5 million pounds of product a year.

Wow, take a deep breath, and reconsider your rash decision to never go to the grocery store again. There is a 75% chance you won’t get sick from food borne illness in the next year and a really, really, really good chance you won’t die! Cheer up. The past poll queried the location in the supermarket that most concerned you about food borne illness. Pre-cut and packaged meats (and lump in the ‘they all scare me’ votes) accounted for 70% of the votes. When I think supermarket, I’m thinking about the big boys, Kroger, Giant Eagle, Wal-Mart..ect. The kinds of places that have eliminated the butcher and sell cuts of meat that are processed at a central location. I have some faith that these large production plants can produce safe product assuming that the laws, rules, regulations and procedures set forth are in fact implemented. While we lament the extinction of the local butcher, I have to wonder if gram-pa Joe and cousin Eddie are really able to apply solid food safety procedures like the big boys. On top of that, if there were another few thousand meat handling institutions how would the USDA be able to look after them all. So, unlike 70% of those who voted I’m comfortable with pre-cut and packaged meat.

What scares me are deli meats! First off you don’t cook them like you do anything on a tray with a wet nap under it. Secondly, you don’t wash it like an apple or lettuce. Deli meats sit in a case of questionable temperature, get pulled out every once in a while and placed on a slicer… the same slicer everything else is cut on, and placed back in the case. What I don’t see is what is most scary; I don’t see the meats get re-wrapped. I don’t see the slicer get cleaned off between uses. I don’t see a thermometer in the case.

Let’s take an example, so a piece of ham gets touched by a piece of machine that was fixed by a repair man who used the restroom right before he fixed the broken down packaging machine, but never washed his hands properly. The first ham through the machine is inoculated with some fecal matter. This ham just happens to sit in a box on a delivery truck of which the cooling unit is not fully functional and this ham is subject to temperatures above 40 degrees allowing for bacterial growth. This ham is delivered to the supermarket and properly refrigerated, looks and smells fine and is sliced open by a clean, gloved and caring deli worker, placed on a clean slicer and shaved perfectly to my specification. So now the slicer, the workers gloves, and everything else he touches or puts on the slicer is in theory infected. So I order some turkey that gets infected from the slicer, and the scale is infected from the gloves, and the next pair of gloves that touch the scale are infected and the turkey is infected from the slicer so now the ham and the turkey are problems. You see how this can multiply fast. Everything in the deli case scares me because right in front of us it is subject to everything that should scare us…it’s handled, it’s prepared, and it’s subject to human hygiene issues.

The next question is how concerned are we? I don’t plan on stopping me deli counter purchases. I doubt any of those who stated they are most concerned about pre-cut and packaged meats are going to stop buying those types of products. We do feel safe with the majority of our food purchases, but it’s complacence that will kill us. And the number one thing we all can do to make ourselves and all those around us safer, wash your hands.

All numerical facts were found on Wikipedia, here or here.


Rachel said...

Hmmm...very interesting. Have you seen Food, Inc., yet?

Michael Walsh said...

Yes, I've seen Food Inc. I wrote about it here:

I would like to see the movie played on free tv during prime time hours as well as in every Health Class in the country. It's a great introduction into caring about your food.