Have you noticed that there seems to be another major food recall every week or so? With the recent food recall over E. coli in three different brands of flour, the one over frozen berries with hepatitis, and the one over beef during a holiday weekend, lots of people are asking why there are so many food recalls. Let’s look at why this is happening, what the real risks to consumers are, what to do if you do get sick, and how to prevent getting sick in the first place.
Why are there so many food recalls?
This is the million dollar question. Food recalls are alarming. No one wants to get sick, especially when several common foodborne illnesses can be fatal. Checking through the last decade’s worth of food recalls listed on the USDA website, here are the various causes that trigger a recall:
- Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli (E. coli)
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Undeclared Allergen
- Extraneous Material
- Processing Defect
- Undeclared Substance
- Unapproved Substance
- Misbranding (previously used term for both undeclared and unapproved substance)
- Chemical contamination
*Includes producing without inspection, failure to present for import inspection, and labeling issues, among others.
A quick look will show that some recalls are for labeling issues, improper inspection issues, or some other administrative trigger. Other recall triggers, like extraneous material, can cause damage, like chomping down on a rock hidden in your breakfast burrito and chipping a tooth.
Undeclared allergens are another big recall trigger. Two reasons for this are:
- The number of people developing adult-onset food allergies is on the rise.
- More varied types of foods are triggering uncommon allergies.
This biggest concern in food recalls, however, are foodborne illnesses.
The cases that concern us the most, however, are foodborne illnesses. Recently both chocolate and frozen berries have been recalled due to potential hepatitis A virus contamination. Who expects to get hepatitis from a snack?
While the possibility of contracting hepatitis from a seemingly innocent sweet treat is unnerving, the most common disease-causing organisms that trigger food recalls are bacteria. The three types of bacteria that commonly cause food recalls are E. coli, listeria, and salmonella.
Each of these bacteria can make people sick. In some cases, these illnesses can be deadly. They are each considered Class I health risks by the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
- Class I – A Class I recall involves a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.
- Class II – A Class II recall involves a potential health hazard situation in which there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food.
- Class III – A Class III recall involves a situation in which eating the food will not cause adverse health consequences.
E. coli is known for causing severe vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and fever. E. coli is found in animal and human intestines. Some strains are harmless and part of our normal gut bacteria. Other strains, such as shiga toxin-producing E. coli 0157, are potentially fatal.
Unfortunately, treatment for E. coli is problematic. E. coli is a member of the Enterobacteriaceae family, which has developed multi-drug resistance. In 2013, Carbapenem-Resistant E. coli was responsible for 1400 infections contracted in a hospital setting in the U.S. alone.
We see the same kind of antibiotic resistance that we see in hospital-acquired E. coli cases in foodborne cases. This is caused by excessive use and misuse of antibiotics in modern, Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) farms.
Antibiotics are not an effective treatment for a case of E. coli. No current treatments can cure the infection, relieve symptoms, or prevent complications. For most people, treatment includes rest and fluids to prevent dehydration and fatigue.
E. coli makes its way into our food supply in a number of ways.
- E. coli-infected animal waste from CAFOs is spread as manure (leafy greens particularly susceptible).
- E. coli-infected feces spreads to meat during the butchering process.
- E. coli-contaminated meat or other food products spread bacterial to processing and packaging equipment, where it is picked up by other food items using the same equipment.
From here, E. coli can be spread person to person by:
- Individuals touch contaminated material and then touch their mouths.
- Individuals touch contaminated material and then shake hands with other people.
To avoid getting sick with E. coli, thoroughly cook your meat. While we all know to cook pork and chicken through, most people prefer their steaks and burgers a little pink in the middle.
Another bacteria that can trigger a Class I food recall is Listeria monocytogenes. Similarly, to E. coli, Listeria can come from contaminated soil, water, or animals. It can contaminate crops through the spread of manure from infected animals.
Meat and dairy products can also be contaminated if the animal was infected. Listeria is sometimes found in soft cheeses, like brie. Pregnant women are cautioned against eating soft cheeses for this reason.
It’s important to be familiar with listeria symptoms. If symptoms develop, antibiotics are administered. However, the results could still be fatal for infants, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system. Symptoms include:
A person with listeriosis has fever, muscle aches, and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea. If infection spreads to the nervous system, symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, or convulsions can occur.
Infected pregnant women may experience only a mild, flu-like illness; however, infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery, or infection of the newborn.
Salmonella is a bacteria most often associated with poultry. However, it is spread through our food system in the same ways that both E. coli and listeria spreads. Salmonella outbreaks are not limited to chicken and turkey. Salmonella outbreaks happen in other meats, like beef, as well as lettuce and other leafy greens.
In mild cases, healthy people may experience no symptoms at all. However, salmonella causes serious illness and is also noted in the CDC’s report on antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are the salmonella symptoms to be on the lookout for:
Salmonella infection is usually caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs or egg products. The incubation period ranges from several hours to two days. Most salmonella infections can be classified as stomach flu (gastroenteritis). Possible signs and symptoms include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Blood in the stool
Signs and symptoms of salmonella infection generally last two to seven days. Diarrhea may last up to 10 days, although it may take several months before bowels return to normal.
Who is to blame?
Our centralized, industrialized food system is at the heart of the increase in food contamination and recalls. Modern farming and modern food manufacturing methods are breeding grounds for bacteria.
On January 4, 2011, the so-called Food Safety and Modernization Act was signed into law. This law is a perfect example of how Big Business controls our politicians. It was written by industry lobbyists for Big Agribusiness farms.
The CFSAN meetings give a picture of how the nation’s food safety laws are influenced by outside interests at a time when the agency is under pressure to implement a major food safety law–the Food Safety and Modernization Act–itself a response to incidents of food-borne bacteria such has salmonella, e. coli, and listeria that have sickened and in same cases killed people. Congress passed the law in late 2010–it was one of the last acts of the outgoing House Democratic majority–and President Barack Obama signed the bill on January 4, 2011. That left it to the FDA to write the detailed rules that the food industry would have to follow to comply with the law, which also gives the industry a second opportunity to influence those rules, often with little or no scrutiny from the public or the press.
“This is supposed to be a transparent process. Under President Obama, things were supposed to be more so, but if anything it’s gotten more opaque,” says David Acheson, a former FDA official and president and CEO of the Acheson Group, which does consulting with industry about implementation of the Food Safety and Modernization Act. “There are people who want to follow the making of the sausage and why shouldn’t you? It’s all going to impact us and our family’s health.”
What this piece of legislation did was give the big corporate farms and food manufacturers a way to regulate small to mid-sized family farms out of competition and leave their own large corporate farms largely unaffected.
And, what politician wouldn’t want to vote for this? Who wants to be known as the congress critter that didn’t vote for “food safety and modernization”? It was a piece of rotten legislation that had a name that was marketable to both politicians and the public, while it allowed for little to no change to those food producers responsible for these outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
How foodborne illnesses get into our food supply
Here are the ways our food gets contaminated, and it’s all because of our unsustainable farming methods and food manufacturing:
- Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) breed bacteria due to filthy conditions, feeding the animals a grain-based diet which is associated with sicker animals, and overuse of antibiotics to both fight disease from the filth the livestock live in, as well as a strategy to fatten up animals faster, leading to stronger bacteria and antibiotic resistance.
- Contamination from contaminated manure (manure that wasn’t given enough time to kill off pathogens) spread onto crops.
- Unsanitary conditions and time constraints in slaughterhouses where workers are pressured to work as fast as possible leads to bacteria transferring from carcass to carcass.
- Microorganisms on contaminated food spread to food processing machinery, which then contaminates other food products sharing the same machinery.
Bottom line is, the more centralized our food is, the more industrialized our food is, the more monoculture and CAFO farms there are, the more our food supply is at risk. The Food Safety and Modernization Act has done nothing to prevent or mitigate these risks. It has only burdened small farmers. And food centralization itself has a long and horrible history.
How to not get sick
Thankfully, most potential outbreaks of these three foodborne illnesses are stopped before a single person becomes ill. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Salmonella causes 450 deaths per year on average. E. coli causes about 65 deaths per year. Listeria is believed to cause about 250 deaths per year. This is in addition to the tens of thousands of hospitalizations due to these foodborne illnesses.
Here are some steps you can take right now to avoid becoming ill from foodborne illness:
- Sign up for food recall alerts so you can find out ASAP when there is a food recall.
- Avoid raw foods.
- Make sure to cook all meat thoroughly to their proper internal temperature.
- Red meats, pork, ham, and seafood – 145°F
- Poultry – 165°F
- Eggs – 160°F
- Just because it looks cooked on the outside, doesn’t mean it’s cooked properly on the inside. Don’t guess. Use a meat thermometer.
- Wash all your produce. (Be aware that rinsing off produce will help reduce bacteria on food, but it isn’t a guarantee.)
- Grow your own garden, if possible.
- If you raise your own chickens, get their feces tested for salmonella.
- Source food locally from a small, local grower that takes a real interest in quality.
- If you can, raise your own chickens for meat and eggs, your own meat rabbits, and any of your own livestock.
For people who lack the space or skills to grow their own food and hunt or raise their own meat, check out your local CSA farms and community garden opportunities. Just do an Internet search for “community gardens near me”. If your city or town doesn’t have one, consider starting one.
When you control more of your own food production, you can control how and with what you feed the soil, how you feed and care for your animals, how clean you keep your butchering equipment, and so on. You limit the number of people involved. You limit the number of hands that touch your food. You limit the opportunities for contamination.
From here, you will need to preserve your own food. Invest in a quality canner and canning guide, dehydrator and dehydrating book, and/or a freezer. Learn to lacto-ferment your veggies if you are interested in food preservation that doesn’t rely on any power and will be a great source of gut-healing, immune-enhancing gut probiotics.
I know this sounds like a lot of effort. But, these bacteria and the thousands of yearly hospitalizations they cause are no joke. Ultimately, it’s up to you to secure a safe food source. The government certainly isn’t going to do it, and neither is the food industry.
What do you think?
Are there things you do to avoid foodborne illness? Do you grow your own food?
Do you have a favorite gardening book? Or perhaps have had experience setting up a community garden program? Let me know in the comments!
Cat Ellis is an herbalist, massage therapist, midwifery student, and urban homesteader from New England. She keeps bees, loves gardening and canning, and practice time at the range. She teaches herbal skills on her website, Herbal Prepper. Cat is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, and the author of two books, Prepper’s Natural Medicine and Prepping for a Pandemic.