Kate Scannell: Food safety worries: When good cookies go bad

Source of Article:  http://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_12855407?source=most_emailed


Contributing columnist

Posted: 07/19/2009 12:01:00 AM PDT

LAST MONTH, the Food and Drug Administration warned people not to eat prepackaged Nestlé's Toll House refrigerated cookie dough. The alarm was noteworthy because nearly 40 percent of Americans eat raw cookie dough, according to Consumer Reports.

The main concern behind the FDA's warning was a risk that the dough might contain a particularly virulent strain of E. coli — a nasty bacterium that can cause serious, even fatal, gastrointestinal infections and kidney problems.

Indeed, since March of this year, E. coli infections speculatively linked to the suspect cookie dough have been reported in at least 69 people, almost half of whom required hospitalization.

Eating raw cookie dough has always been considered a half-baked idea because it risked acquiring salmonella infections from contaminated egg products. That is precisely why the current dough-lorous infectious outbreak is causing supplementary concern: the suspect E. coli is not typically associated with cookie dough ingredients.

Because the culprit E. coli traditionally resides within the intestines of cows and other animals, it is perplexing (actually, a bit disturbing) to wonder how it managed to sneak into the Toll House. Indeed, as a puzzled expert on food-borne diseases commented in the Washington Post, "By just looking at the package labeling, there is no reason you would expect an event like this to occur."

Agreeably, it would be useful if package labeling always offered telling hints whenever food products might contain lethal infectious agents. Better yet, that "E. coli" or "Salmonella" were explicitly listed as additives when present.

Still, how many consumers actually read food product labels? Nestlé's own label plainly cautions consumers against eating raw cookie dough — obviously, many of us just doughn't abide.

While capable adults should assume responsibility for their eating habits, safe food consumption can be challenging when food manufacturers don't comply with rigorous safety monitoring and transparent reporting of problems. For example, according to the Associated Press (but debated by Nestlé), inspection records "from a Nestlé USA cookie dough factory show that the company refused several times in the past five years to provide FDA inspectors with complaint logs, pest-control records and other information."

Yet even an FDA spokesperson conceded that the law does not require such reporting from companies, and corporate refusal to share such safety data with food inspectors is neither surprising nor unusual. She said, "Companies have the right to make conditions on what they will or will not permit during an inspection ... . Some companies have a policy that they outline for the investigator at the beginning of an inspection."

Furthermore, under current regulations, even if an FDA inspector obtained permission to investigate a food company, distributors and processors are not required to maintain detailed records that allow automatic back-tracing of contaminated foods from table to field. This all conspires to make it difficult for the FDA to identify the source of a food-borne illness and contain it in a timely fashion.

To further confound matters in the current case, several days ago the proverbial cookie crumbled within the hands of epidemiologists. The FDA announced that the strain of E. coli it had recovered from a sample of Nestlé raw cookie dough did not match the strain linked to the national outbreak. This new twist compounded an already tangled investigation that might be more expeditiously straightened out if all relevant facts were made available.

Lately, we Americans have been battered with unappetizing news about the integrity of our food supply. We have stomached a few too many recent food-borne illnesses — peanut-drenched salmonellosis, canned chili-con-carne-con-botulism, and beef a-la e-coli to name but a few.

Along with these episodes, the current outbreak — allegedly due to dough-borne bacteria — highlights critical vulnerabilities that exist within our nation's food safety system. It reinforces widespread perception that the over-taxed, under-staffed, and disempowered FDA is incapable of protecting our food supply. Our own Government Accountability Office recently concluded that inconsistent oversight, inefficient use of resources, and ineffective coordination pervades our food safety system.

The serial outbreaks additionally speak to serious and costly public health problems for our country. As an essayist poignantly asks in a recent New England Journal of Medicine: "How can food borne disease develop in 76 million residents of one of the world's most technically advanced countries each year, causing 350,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths and adding $7 billion to our health care costs?"

Under President Barack Obama's directive, Congress is cooking up new bipartisan legislation to overhaul our food safety system. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 was introduced in March, and it intends to augment the FDA's enforcement and oversight authority.

While I applaud those goals, I also hope that legislators will focus their attention and resources wisely, avoiding oppressive and unwarranted regulatory burdens on local food economies and markets. If the evolving legislation is not amended to make explicit carve-outs for confined micro-agribusinesses, local organic and back-yard food producers may be put out of business.

With these caveats in mind, let's hope that the forthcoming food safety legislation provides a better recipe for a healthier public.

Kate Scannell is a Bay Area physician, syndicated columnist, and author of "Death of the Good Doctor."


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