Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Embracing Your Green Friend

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, December 12, 2006 --  

Media fear-mongering has exaggerated the health risks of America's produce.

With the frequency of American food scares growing to a tiresome regularity the past year, the arrival of yet another incident wouldn't normally warrant a mention. This time, however, it's personal. The 64 recently confirmed cases of E. coli poisoning around the country have been traced to people who have eaten at Taco Bell.1 And as a minor shareholder in the company, America's latest food scare has begun to hurt my bottom line.

Initial reports indicated that batches of green onions from a western supplier used in Taco Bell's food had tested positive for E. coli, although subsequent tests have failed to confirm them as the source of the outbreak. If onions are indeed the source, it amounts to the second high-profile case of produce-related E. coli poisoning in America this year.

An earlier outbreak traced to bagged spinach from California was one of the biggest food scares in years, killing three Americans and sickening nearly 200.2 The earlier outbreak was so hyped that, months later, the stigma of bagged spinach continues to go strong. To this day, it is difficult to find baby spinach in American supermakets, and restaurants typically refuse to serve spinach salads -- even if they appear on printed menus.

But alarmist Americans who wring their hands about a breakdown in the country's food safety systems miss the bigger picture. The main difference from years past is not that America's food is less safe -- it's that changes in technology have made it possible to trace foodborne illnesses in ways that were once unimaginable. Today, the genetic footprint of E. coli bacteria found in the sick can be matched to specific strains of E. coli found in fields, on produce, or in restaurants.

This turns each outbreak of food poisoning into a whodunit story -- one that can continually satisfy the daily news programming needs of alarmist broadcast and cables news programs. But while this is great for news producers, it's terrible for Americans who have to deal with all the media-induced panic. Because in the end, the number of Americans deaths from foodborne illnesses are miniscule. Compare the three Americans killed by spinach with the millions of Americans killed each year by obesity-related diseases caused by the overconsumption of unhealthy foods.

To be sure, plenty of problems with America's food supply do exist. Filthy industry practices make it impossible to safely grill up a medium-rare hamburger, unless you are lucky enough to find irradiated ground beef in your supermarket. And similarly disturbing poultry industry practices force Americans to treat their raw chicken as if it were laced with polonium-210.

But the health risks caused by America's over-processing of meat and poultry are completely unlike those associated with raw produce. Uncooked greens will always carry some risk simply because they are uncooked. But this tiny risk of eating these foods is miniscule -- especially when compared to the long term health risk of eating any supersized or deep fat fried alternative.

So don't run away in fear when given the chance to eat a spinach salad or a chicken soft taco with spring onions. It's time to turn off the fear-mongering television and embrace your tasty green friends.


1. Washington Post, More Cases of Food Poisoning Reported, December 12, 2006

2. U.S. Center For Disease Control, Update on Multi-State Outbreak of E. Coli O157:H7 Infections From Fresh Spinach, October 6, 2006