Editor’s Note: Ford Vox is a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine. He is also a journalist whose work ranges from investigations to analysis, including his frequent contributions to CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @FordVox. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion at CNN.
It’s properly unsettling when we hear about the latest mass food recalls, but so far the voluntary avocado recall by the Henry Avocado Corporation Monday is an example of a “good” type of recall: the bug listeria monocytogenes was caught through a routine government inspection, and as yet there are no reported deaths or illnesses.
Mass recalls of our wholesome fruits and vegetables like the avocado on Saturday and romaine lettuce just months ago are a reminder, but also something of a wake-up call.
The reminder is that we are all fundamentally reliant on good regulatory oversight (our well-used tax dollars at work) and good corporate management in the food sector. The wake-up call? Depending on a complex web of food production, delivery and mass retail sale – rather than well-stocked local sources – for what is on our plate every day is distinctly unnatural and makes us vulnerable.
Consider that in January the CDC declared that the romaine lettuce-linked E. coli O157:H7 outbreak from central coastal California announced in December “appears to be over,” and the agency has focused on one farm’s agricultural reservoir where it identified the same strain of E. coli that was infecting people.
But the CDC doesn’t yet know how that reservoir got seeded with E. coli, although it’s likely that infected animals spread it through their feces. That outbreak ultimately sickened 62 people across 16 states, landing 25 in the hospital. Fortunately, no one died.
Listeria, the bug at issue in the avocado recall, is a particularly tough food processing enemy, thriving on the mechanized production and storage facilities of our food distribution system. It’s quite common, and it’s even possible you’ve had a listeria infection and didn’t know it, as the symptoms are often mild, and can cause a couple of days flu-like symptoms or nausea and diarrhea that may not send you to the hospital.
In fact, when we randomly test people for it, 5% of the population has it in their gut at any given time. It can prove deadly though in some cases, especially anyone with immune system problems, during pregnancy, infants or the elderly.
If the full-blown infection listeriosis sets in, death rates can approach 30% as the bacterium invades the bloodstream and organs.
Yet listeria is almost omnipresent in our food system, and doesn’t respond to many typical food safety measures: this bug will even grow while refrigerated, and heartily clings to surfaces. In studies where scientists have taken food off the shelves, listeria is isolated routinely, in 5.9% of cured or dried meat, 2.9% of deli meat, 2% of packaged salads, and 2.4% of soft cheese.
The researchers couldn’t get reliable information on the levels of the bacteria, but it’s generally believed that levels under 100 “colony forming units” don’t lead to infection unless the consumer is in one of the vulnerable categories above – but that includes a lot of people.
Avocados in particular seem prone to listeria: according to an FDA sampling study, almost 18% of avocados had listeria on their skin (when the FDA sampled just the avocado pulp it only found 0.24% were contaminated). While we don’t eat the skin, if you don’t wash your avocado well as you’re handling and cutting it, you’re introducing those bugs into the pulp of the fruit you’re planning to eat. Definitely don’t save part of the cut avocado with the skin on in the fridge for later, that’s inviting the refrigerator-eager bug to spread into the flesh of the avocado.
We should all hate that we’re vulnerable to mass infections spread by our food system rapidly delivering contaminated product across the country. But where to manifest our disgust is a thornier problem.
A strong takeaway from bacterial outbreaks is this: We need a strong FDA, USDA and CDC out there working in our best interests, and those agencies all operate on tax dollars. With tax day around the corner, think about that fringe benefit the next time you miraculously avoid a bloody diarrhea attributable to your salad, trucked in from parts unknown.
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Foodborne illness outbreaks remind us just how much we depend on commerce running well – and how little control we personally have over it all. At best they might spur us to shop locally a little more often, and that’s good for your health in many ways. Go to your local farmers market, meet your neighbors, learn about what’s going on in the city you live in. Re-connect, re-humanize, de-stress.
Local produce isn’t risk-free either, but the lack of warehousing and cross-country distribution helps, and it might lower our modern existential anxieties a little to know something about where our food came from, as our ancestors did.