What's wrong with our food?

E. coli at Taco Bell, Listeria in our Thanksgiving turkey, a report of unprecedented contamination in our chicken. Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," explains why.

Published December 7, 2006 1:20PM (EST)

The Great Spinach Scare of '06 is, thankfully, now behind us, but the bad news about our food keeps coming. Just this week, we've heard from Consumer Reports about a new study -- which, to be fair, the USDA disputes -- that says 83 percent of grocery store chickens are contaminated with either salmonella or campylobacter bacteria, or both. Then there are the 65 people apparently sickened by E. coli bacteria on green onions served in Taco Bells in New York, New Jersey and now, possibly, Pennsylvania. There may also be bacteria in the Razzamatazz at Jamba Juice, the smoothie chain, which has reported that some of the strawberries it used in the Southwest and California in the past week may have been contaminated by potentially lethal Listeria. And lets not forget the unfestive and Listeria-inspired recall of ham and turkey by the HoneyBaked Ham company right before Thanksgiving.

Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, is the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." He spoke with Salon about the latest news, tracing it all back to a common root, the change in food production methods and the centralization of our food supply, which means, for instance, that hundreds of dead chickens can now lie chilling in the same vat of water. Bigger problems, Pollan warns, could be ahead: "Superbugs" with antibiotic resistance are becoming more common, and then there's always the risk of terror, to which such a centralized production system is uniquely vulnerable.

Has the latest news -- the E. coli at Taco Bell, the Listeria and the high level of contamination found by the Consumer Reports study -- surprised you at all?

Well, the extent of [the contamination] did. The problem has been growing over the past few years. I mean, food poisoning's always with us, there are always some nasty bugs that get into the food, but the scope of it has gotten a lot more serious. And why that is, I can only speculate, but the way we're producing meat is certainly conducive to these sorts of contaminations.

I don't know what strains of campylobacter or salmonella have been implicated in the chicken, but some of them are antibiotic-resistant strains. That's a particular problem with salmonella. Salmonella was not as serious a problem a few years ago; it was very common in the environment and most of us could fight it with antibiotics, but once you get an antibiotic-resistant strain, it's a big problem  We've been warned for decades about the prospect of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food supply. These antibiotics are precious public goods that are being wasted on agriculture. Now, you have to go back and ask why would we be using antibiotics and causing a completely foreseeable problem? And there are two reasons. For reasons nobody understands, they've found that antibiotics in small doses given to animals accelerate growth. The other reason is, though, that if you're keeping animals in close confinement, thousands of animals in a shed, you're very worried about them getting sick. It's a monoculture; they're genetically identical, so you need to protect them. And you protect them with antibiotics...

The E. coli O157:H7 that everybody's worrying about is the result of a normal E. coli, the kind that's in everybody's gut, the kind that doesn't make you sick or put your kidneys into hemolytic shock, but it evolved because we changed the environment we lived in and now it is a very nasty bug. In that case, too, you can point to industrial methods of raising animals. The first cases of E. coli O157:H7 were not recognized until 1982. They were recognized in feedlot beef, and the theory is that it's an acid-loving bug that evolved in the rumen of cattle getting a very acidic diet, which is to say a corn and grain diet, so that the very existence of this bug may well be -- and this is a theory, but I haven't seen it contradicted -- may well be a result of keeping cattle on feedlots.

The Consumer Reports study about the chicken noticed a rise in the number of contaminated chickens over the past three years -- in a previous survey, 42 percent of grocery store chickens contained campylobacter, and now it's 81 percent. Is there any reason for that?

Again, if it's antibiotic-resistant, if it's proliferating, that might explain it. But I don't know enough to say that.

Some of these problems have to do with sloppiness in the way we process meat. If you have slaughterhouses, or a chicken-processing plant, where the lines are moving too fast, you're going to get manure on the carcasses of the animals. It's just a function of care and scrupulousness. We've learned how to make meat very cheaply, and that means making it very quickly. In beef-processing plants, there are up to 400 head an hour, which is just -- it's impossible to keep manure off the carcasses. In chicken too, although it's a much more automated system, the very speed of this, when you're eviscerating these animals mechanically, a certain number of times you're going to break the intestines. There's going to be some mishap on the line and the manure, which I assume is the reservoir for, and again I don't know, for salmonella and campylobacter, is going to get in the bath of the water in which you've got your thousands of carcasses chilling, and it's going to spread.

I think one thing that these contaminations are a product of is the centralization of the food supply. How many different plants did those chickens come from? It's probably a number you can count on one or two hands now. We have so centralized our food supply that, if you look at the example of hamburger, we're grinding most of the nation's hamburgers in a very small handful of plants and most of the nation's chickens are coming out of a handful of plants where they've all been in the same water bath. This is a Petri dish. We've created a huge Petri dish for our food, and it's not just meat. We've seen it in spinach, too, with the Natural Selection story this fall. So even though you can get these problems in smaller agriculture, you don't get this kind of scale, you don't get the widespread contamination.

Were hearing now that the apparent E. coli contamination in Taco Bells on the East Coast may be coming from scallions; Taco Bell has found contamination in some samples. Why do you think they're finding it there?

I don't know what to make of it, exactly. It's the same bug that we found in spinach in the Salinas Valley [in September]; and in that case, it was ultimately traced to cattle manure  It speaks to the fact that whether you're talking about animal or vegetable agriculture, these things are not in separate compartments, and what we understand ecologically is true when it comes to both plants and animals, which is that everything's connected, and once you have these bugs in the environment, they're going to get around

I think we're going to hear more about separating animals from agriculture as a result of this. I really think that that's unfortunate, because it's hard to imagine truly sustainable agriculture that doesn't incorporate animals and plants on the same farm. So I'd hate to see regulations make thing worse. But I don't know -- that may be the push, it's hard to know how this will get interpreted. But [what] I keep witnessing [is that] the fixes tend to push us in exactly the wrong direction, even though they're well-meaning.

Is the federal government having any effect at all, making our food safer at all?

We changed the way we regulate meat back in the '90s, as a result of E. coli contaminations of hamburger. We went to this HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point] plan, where we required, essentially, a voluntary plan, where the meat processor has to come up with their own plan based on isolating critical control points within the production process, places where contamination is likely to happen. So in other words, say, where you skin the hides of the cattle is a place where manure could get on, so you have to show that you're doing something at that point, or putting the animal through an acid bath that would kill E. coli, whatever it is, you basically design your plan and the government approves it. I think we have to ask ourselves whether HACCP is working, and I don't know the answer to that. But it certainly hasn't taken care of the problem. Now, we've always struggled with the proper way to regulate meat plants, and we obviously don't have the answer yet. Probably you will soon hear calls for more technological solutions, such as irradiation. I think that sooner or later there will be a call to irradiate the meat supply. I think that would be a shame; it's an industrial solution to an industrial problem, and I'd much rather look at these other questions: How much meat are we processing in the same plant? How quickly are we processing it? Maybe we should be doing it another way, maybe we should be thinking about decentralizing the meat system instead of further centralizing it, which is exactly what a high-tech solution would do, because only the really big companies could afford the new high-tech solution. You'll end up forcing out of business small processors who are slaughtering meat carefully, and that seems to me a shame.

What about the current administration? Has there been any progress from them?

Not that I can perceive. I don't think it's been a high priority for them. The FDA has done some really good detective work in the case of the spinach story, and I generally have more confidence in them than the USDA. The important thing to understand is that our food safety regime is badly Balkanized, so the FDA, for some reason, is doing plants, vegetables, and the USDA is doing meat. Similar issues, similar expertise involved, completely separated.

There was talk after 9/11 that we needed to rationalize the food-safety regime in this country, we needed to take all these different food safety bits and pieces of the government and put it under one agency, streamline it and rationalize it, because the standards are different for meat than they are for vegetables. I think that's something we need to look at. That was a GAO report recommendation after 9/11, but the government didn't go there at all, they weren't interested in that, and the reason for that, basically, is that the USDA is heavily, heavily influenced by the meat industry, and has very little power vis-à-vis the meat industry. The USDA cannot even order a recall of beef; it must be voluntary, under the laws. The FTC can order a recall of any toy it decides might be choking kids; they can instantly order a recall. The USDA has to negotiate it with the company, and if the company doesn't want to play, there won't be a recall. So in many ways the USDA is captive of the meat industry, and to expect them to both promote the interests of American meat processors, which is their mission, and protect public health against unscrupulous or sloppy meat processors, also their mission, represents a conflict of interest.

Given that this has been the administration since 9/11, and given that they've gotten a very clear signal that there's a problem with regulation of food in this country, and that their own GAO, not to mention that [former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA] Tommy Thompson has warned that there's a huge threat in a centralized food production system of both accidental and deliberate contamination. Nothing has been done to decentralize the system in a way that would offer us more safety.

When you put all your eggs in one basket, it's very precarious. It's a very precarious system, and it leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of problems, one of which we're seeing, these contaminations. But it also leaves us vulnerable to terrorist threats. I really think the over-centralization of the food supply is a threat to national security and public health, and it's a threat that's not being addressed. To the extent it is addressed, it's addressed in adding layers of regulations and adding layers of technology, and I just don't think that's the way to go. I think when you have a problem you go back to the roots, and you fix the roots of the problem, you don't just tack on bandages, and that seems to be where we're going  We're playing with fire, feeding ourselves this way.

OK, so -- and I ask this with a good deal of hyperbole, obviously -- is it safe to eat?

(Laughs.) Yeah. It's still better to eat than not to eat, because the certainty of death if you don't eat is 100 percent, where the certainty of death by eating is very tiny still, I'm sure, less than 1 percent. So any elementary grasp of statistics would tell you that you should continue to eat.

But you need to protect yourself. I encourage people to patronize smaller-scale agriculture and avoid industrial meat when they can, when they can afford to do it. But that said, a lot of these problems can be solved by cooking more thoroughly than people cook. Most of these bugs are killed at high temperatures, and so there are things people can do to help. It's just a shame people have to worry about them.

What's the solution? Is it as simple as doing what you've been discussing, decentralizing the system of production?

No. I think it's having a really smart regulatory regime; I think that it is giving more power to the USDA to regulate meat plants. The USDA should have the ability to recall meat whenever they have any concerns; the USDA should have an adequate budget to put inspectors in; they should be performing not just sniff tests of meat but bacterial analysis; they should set standards for how much bacteria is acceptable in meat; there's a whole lot they can do to improve regulation.

They can also, as I suggested earlier, put all the food safety efforts of the government under a single agency and make that agency independent of any influence by the food industry. That would be a huge step. But I also think it's very important that the regulations be customized to the situation, and that a meat plant processing 10,000 birds an hour or 400 cows an hour should not [have] the same regulatory burden as a small slaughterhouse or a farmer who chooses to slaughter his own chickens and can't afford to install the irradiation machine and in fact doesn't need it either. We have to figure out a way to [match] the regulation to the production system, which we don't [do] right now. We have this idea of one size fits all. So there's a lot to be done on the regulatory side, and I think it needs to be done carefully.

I think we have to pay attention to the diet of the animals, and I think we also have to get antibiotics out of livestock feed. I think that is really a disaster waiting to happen. We always assumed that we would get new antibiotics as we needed them and as we lost them, but in fact it's proving very hard to find new antibiotics, and we're realizing just how precious these things are. It really is a crime that we're wasting them to make chickens grow a little faster, or to allow us to keep chickens in closer confinement in larger numbers because we're going to make a few more pennies and reduce the cost of chicken by a few cents. I think that that's a very dangerous and shortsighted way to grow meat.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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