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“Leave Well Enough Alone” is Not a Path to Safe Food

David Babcock, an attorney with Seattle-based Marler Clark, wrote in response to a personal essay published recently in the Houston Chronicle titled, “Is the fear of food poisoning eating at you?” in a letter titled, "Leave Well Enough Alone is Not a Path to Safe Food":

By David W. Babcock, Esq.

Ms. Grodinsky’s recent personal essay, “Is the fear of food poisoning eating at you?” offers a deceptive take on food safety. Ms. Grodinsky is right, of course, hysteria over the safety of the U.S. food supply is unproductive and irrational. Just as irrational, however, is her downplay of the pressing importance of improving the safety of our food supply and the seriousness of the consequences for failing to do so.

Ms. Grodinsky’s piece echoes much of what has been said in opposition to increased food safety efforts in the past, advocating the questionable argument that there is a relatively low level of risk associated with the food supply. But her “low risk” argument is not a reason to ignore the risks that are known to exist. A lot of lettuce and spinach has been grown in the Salinas valley in the past 10 years. The overwhelming majority was not contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Is that a reason not to be concerned with the lettuce and spinach that was contaminated, or the potential for contamination to happen again?

According to a new article in the New England Journal of Medicine from Dr. Dennis G. Maki, “This is at least the 26th reported outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection that has been traced to contaminated leafy green vegetables since 1993.” The FDA has told us that most of these outbreaks originated in the Salinas Valley. Is Ms. Grodinsky suggesting that we not make a “fuss” and turn a blind eye to this obviously ongoing and serious problem?

Ms. Grodinsky wants us to look at the “benefits and costs” of worrying about food safety. She identifies the costs of food safety failures as “giving up spinach for a few weeks.” This, of course, was the cost only for those who did not get ill, and a remedy that came too late to address the problem. Taking this selective view of the “costs” undermines any serious assessment of the proper weight to be assigned to food safety efforts.

Perhaps most disingenuous is Ms. Grodinsky’s dismissive portrayal the suffering associated with foodborne illness generally and E. coli O157:H7 specifically. Ms. Grodinsky would have us believe that children suffering from HUS come away only with memories of the movies they watched from their hospital beds. The assertion is as absurd as it sounds. The children and adults that live to recall their HUS have memories of dialysis, plasmapharesis, seizures, renal failure, excruciating cramps, bloody diarrhea and full body swelling that can leave the victim unrecognizable. For many, there are not just memories, but also life-long medical conditions that include kidney failure and diabetes.

Should we live in fear of the US food supply? No. Should we stop eating? No. Ms. Grodinsky does not want us to live in fear of the food we eat. She shares this position with those pushing increased vigilance in food safety – organizations like Safe Tables Our Priority and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The way to eliminate that fear, however, is taking steps to decrease the risk, not sweeping concerns under the rug as “fuss.”

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