Eatin’ Safely in the Jungle


I’ve just returned from a business trip to India. If Indians are interested in U.S. food safety, I thought to myself as I read the news from home, then Americans must be deeply concerned about the quality of what they’re putting on their dinner tables. Indeed, the E. coli tainted spinach now appears to be one of the biggest agricultural stories of the year.

As the farm to fork line has expanded across state and national borders, food alerts can become a cause of concern for consumers and producers all around the world. Even though the incidences are few, BSE and avian flu concerns in the last decade have illustrated how health scares involving food can impact an industry.

As a lettuce grower, this is too close for comfort. If this was lettuce instead of spinach, the cost to me personally could have been $200,000 – and I’m just a small player.

Americans are understandably nervous. People who eat spinach tend to be health conscious. And people who eat organic spinach–which appears to be at the root of this E. coli outbreak–tend to be especially health conscious. Their affliction is a sad irony.

We can now expect a bitter round of litigation and legislation. Whatever the merits of these lawsuits and proposals, much of their intent will be to improve our food safety in the future.

But perhaps this is an appropriate moment to look forward, but also glance back–and to recognize how far we’ve come in the last century in terms of making our food safe to eat.

This year happens to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Jungle, the book by Upton Sinclair that is one of the best-known and most influential novels ever published in the United States.

Although Sinclair wrote fiction, he fits into the tradition of the journalistic muckrakers–writers who sought to expose political, social, or commercial corruption. The Jungle, of course, focused on food safety in meatpacking plants. Just a few months after its publication, Congress felt compelled to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Consider a few lines from The Jungle, which Sinclair based upon his personal investigations into Chicago packing plants:

“Every spring [workers cleaned out the waste barrels] and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water–and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hopper with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.”

There was a lot more in that book but I think you get the idea.

Sinclair had plenty of critics. Many experts accused him of sensationalism, and of describing a situation that was far worse in his novelist’s imagination than it was in reality. President Theodore Roosevelt offered a brutal assessment of Sinclair: “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”

Roosevelt nevertheless signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law. Even if the problem was only half as bad as what Sinclair had described, it was horribly bad–and far, far worse than anything that goes on today.

An important fact regarding our food safety must not be lost amid the continuing front-page reports: State and federal officials, coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were able to single out spinach as the problem thanks to a new surveillance system that was developed after a 1993 outbreak of E. coli outbreak at the Jack In The Box chain.

According to Robert Tauxe, Deputy Director, CDC’s Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Disease, the quick detective work accomplished through the use of the system linking public-health labs enabled public health officials to alert each other about small clusters of cases and stay alert regarding potential nationwide outbreaks. In a recent Wall Street Journal report, Mr. Tauxe stated, “We are finding the large outbreaks when they are still in a small stage and act on it. Before the system was launched 10 years ago, we only got the big ones after they got big. That’s really too late.”

Sinclair, for his part, was always disappointed with the response to The Jungle–he didn’t want merely to inspire a new food law, but to lead a socialist revolution. Thankfully, he failed in this grand ambition. But he did come up with a good joke about it: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The E. coli outbreak reminds us that it’s still possible to get hit hard in the stomach. But in our hearts we should be grateful that never in history has food been safer to eat than right now. It’s not a jungle out there anymore.

Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios and garlic in the San Joaquin Valley and lives in Lemoore, California. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology

Ted Sheely

Ted Sheely

Ted raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm. Chairman of Horizon Growers (pistachios). Long-standing interest and investment in water availability and quality. Received Innovative Water Conservation Award.

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