Kate Scannell: Food safety
worries: When good cookies go bad
of Article: http://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_12855407?source=most_emailed
Posted: 07/19/2009 12:01:00 AM PDT
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
Scannell is a Bay Area physician, syndicated columnist, and author of
"Death of the Good Doctor."