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My concern with raw milk is that people have this desire to go back to the 1940s and 1950s and live a simpler life, which is not such a bad idea in many respects. The problem is that the bacteria and viruses that exist now are way different than what existed then. E. coli 0157 and the shiga-toxin-producing E. coli that can kill us didn’t even exist until the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they’re changing all the time.
So when people say, “I used to drink raw milk all the time when I was a kid,” well, the raw milk you were drinking as a kid 40 years ago had way different risks than the raw milk that you potentially drink today.
And I look at it from the perspective of representing children who have had raw milk and their parents thought that they were giving their kids a healthful product that had been sort of sold to them as a product that could kill bacteria, not contain bacteria. And these kids have had pretty severe hemolytic uremic syndrome.
So my perspective on it is, there’s no real convincing evidence that raw milk is so much better for you that it’s worth the risk of feeding it to your children.
How has your line of work affected your own food choices?
It probably has impacted less what I eat and more what my kids eat. My children, who are now 16, 13, and 9, have never had a hamburger. Never. And we’re very, very careful about things like sprouts and raw products, although we try very hard to get local vegetables and local fruits and wash them thoroughly.
I probably think too much about the foods we eat, primarily because outbreaks happen so often. I think I’ve just had too much experience with the negative side of food.
Who do you think has the biggest responsibility in preventing food-borne illness outbreaks: industry, government, or consumers?
When I was at the meat meeting, repeatedly people would say, “If only people would cook the meat.” And of course, my response to that was, “If only you didn’t put cow shit in it, people wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
I’ve also been very, very disappointed in government for the last dozen years. For many years, you couldn’t get a hearing. Now you can get hearings, but they never seem to do anything. Government needs to fund regulators sufficiently for them to help prevent outbreaks. But Congress and the bureaucrats seem more intent on having a great press conference and saying that they’re going to make a new food-safety agency or something. And then they don’t do anything, and a year later, another outbreak happens, and they say the same thing over and over and over again.
But I also think consumers tend to be way too passive. Passive not only in their knowledge of food safety and food risks, but also in holding corporations and politicians accountable for making our food supply safer.
Ultimately I believe it’s the consumer’s responsibility. But obviously it’s a shared responsibility. I’ve seen great corporations that do a marvelous job of not poisoning their customers. I seldom get to spend much time with them because I’m never suing them.
What would you like to see the new administration enact as the top policy changes for food safety?
The first thing I would do is increase our ability to surveil pathogen outbreaks. Look at the peanut-butter case; it really started in late August or early September, but it wasn’t figured out or announced until after the first of the year.
In many of these outbreaks, anywhere between 20 and 40 times the number of people who are counted actually do get sick. If we were doing more rigorous surveillance at ERs and pediatrician offices and primary-care providers, if local and state health authorities were gathering that information in a timely way and getting that information to the CDC, you’d basically be taking an outbreak that starts in August and figuring it out in September or October at the latest. You’d figure out the outbreak sooner, you’d figure out who the producer was sooner, and you’d save people.
And figuring out outbreaks sooner means that you’re more likely to be able to pinpoint a particular supplier sooner, so you don’t have the problem like you had last year with salmonella in produce: “It’s tomatoes — oh, never mind, it’s peppers!” And the tomato industry loses hundreds of millions of dollars. Putting an infrastructure in place for reporting outbreaks would be a good thing.
My other major move on food safety would be to have all food manufacturers have some sort of hazard-analysis, critical-control type plan. And they should do environmental and end-product testing. Everyone should be required to do it. And all the test results should be completely transparent, so the government doesn’t have to ask for them and the companies that are having repeated problems can be helped.
That, however, would require more funding for the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. It’s not going to be an easy thing. But hey, there’s money floating around.
Yeah! Come on, stimulate food safety!
Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
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