Where's the Outrage on Food Contamination?

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Eating Liberally's Kat wants to know why there isn't a bigger public outcry about all the food safety scandals. If you've been reading these posts, you probably can guess how I've answered her question, but here's what I told her:

Kat: The New York Times ran a story the other day exposing a stunning indifference on the part of public health officials in some states to outbreaks of life-threatening food-borne illnesses. The article included some astounding statistics: "One-quarter of the nation's population is sickened every year by contaminated food, 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die."

Presumably, if terrorists were poisoning our food supply and killing 5,000 Americans annually we'd be up in arms about it--if not dropping bombs. Where's the outrage?

Dr. Nestle: Outrage? There really isn't much but much can't be expected, urgent as it may be. This, as I discuss in early chapters of my book, Safe Food, has to do with the way humans perceive risk. As far as I can tell from the evidence, we are hard wired to be most frightened of food dangers that seem foreign, alien, technological, and under someone else's control. That's why it's pretty easy to generate fear and outrage about genetically modified foods, bovine growth hormone, irradiation, and bisphenol A, for example, but much harder to get people worked up about microbial illness.

The CDC says Americans experience 76 million episodes of food poisoning a year, along with those 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Pretty much everyone has experienced foodborne illness and most of us survive to tell the tale. Such things may be unpleasant--sometimes very unpleasant--but they are familiar. And we share some of the responsibility: if only we had washed our hands, not eaten that egg salad, cooked foods to the right temperature, and so forth. Much as we might like to, we can't blame faceless corporations like Monsanto for what we shouldn't have eaten last night.

Even so, it is beyond me why people aren't taking to the streets to complain about the lack of reliable food safety oversight. We could do so much better a job of ensuring safe food if we had better rules in place and an agency required, willing, and able to enforce those rules. As I wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, we have two sets of bills before Congress now, some aimed at fixing the FDA and some aimed at fixing the system. I think the entire system needs a fix but I will gladly settle for fixing the FDA if that's the best we can get right now. But nothing will happen without enormous public pressure. Outrage! We need you now!
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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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