Sometimes I do my best not to “rock the boat”. Sometimes I capsize it. This might be one of the latter times.
Last semester, as my Beef Industry Scholars class was finishing up our course on Food Safety, we had a mock “hearing” to discuss a proposed bill by the USDA. As if it were a Senate meeting, each classmate represented some branch or facet of the agricultural industry that might be affected by the bill, which addressed issues concerning controlling Ecoli 0157h7 in beef production. One by one, my classmates delivered their carefully crafted and researched testimonies on how this bill would affect their aspect of the business, or how they would have to change to comply with the bill. They explained the use of technology and HACP (Hazard Analysis Control Points) Plans that kept the security on their operations tight, and their success ratings high. As we neared the end of our time, I realized that my carefully crafted testimony was not what I needed to say to that group that day.
My “viewpoint” was that of a consumer advocate – asking for more regulations on the beef industry to help curb the effects of the 0157h7 bacteria on people’s lives; I cited stories of individuals who had lost their children to the infection, and inserted my plea that they try harder, my plea that no amount of cost or effort outweighed someone’s life. Which is true, but what I realized was this; Ecoli is a bacteria. Not even Lysol can get a %100 kill on bacteria. It’s microscopic. It slips through the cracks despite our best efforts to control it at the source. Which is why we have testing and recalls and quality control to help make sure that we catch it before it does any damage.
I’ve worked in fast food, I’ve worked in restaurants. I know what goes on behind the scenes; I’ve been in those kitchens. I do my best to wash my hands and not cross-contaminate things and I reprimand others when they don’t. The consumer’s safety is my main concern.
In my research for my testimony I read dozens of horrifying stories of mothers losing their toddlers because they ate a bad hamburger. They trace it back to the industry and beg and plead for us to fix the problem. But do you know what I read in those stories? It wasn’t the beef industry’s fault. Yes, that hamburger may have contained traces of Ecoli, but if it had been cooked properly, there would not have been an issue. Maybe it wasn’t even the beef that contained the Ecoli. Maybe it was cross contamination from an employee that didn’t wash their hands.
At that point, it’s out of the beef industry’s hands, where it falls to the other culprit; the medical industry.
There were so many stories that I read where a mother listened to her instincts and took her sick baby to the hospital, instead of assuming that the bloody diarrhea and excessive vomiting were simply a common flu bug, only to be told by the nurses or the doctor that it was just that; a flu. They’d be fine in a day or two. Only by then, the bacteria has infected their liver and kidneys, and most toddlers don’t survive dialysis. Mothers and fathers watch their babies waste away to nothing and die a painful death because they did one thing that is essential for survival; they ate something.
They were misdiagnosed by the medical personnel and who do those parents choose to blame? Not the industry that never got them the test results that will tell them what they already know, not the industry that charged them exorbitant amounts just to tell them their child had the flu, and for the dialysis and surgery that didn’t save their life, no. They blame the farmers, ranchers, feedlot owners and commercial abattoir operators whose revenue depends on their product being safe and affordable.
I’ve read some comments from friends recently that point out how tired they are of hearing about how “farmers feed the world” and “we’re so perfect and we don’t do anything wrong” from the agricultural community. Which brings me to my original point; clearly we’re preaching to the choir. There’s a population out there that’s like “okay, okay we get it!” and the other portion of the population that still has no clue. We are apparently not reaching them.
I’m almost as sick of preaching this as you are of hearing it! How many times can I say it? How many times can I say it nicely? Is it time to put our feet down and quit caving to the pressure? Is it okay to say "We are doing enough - we are doing all that we can. Point your fingers somewhere else."?
We’re running around trying to fill the cracks in our tiny dam with all the caulk and glue in the world and there are still a handful of consumers standing there behind the sieve that is the rest of the food industry and telling us to work harder.
We’re all sick of this stupid food fight.
Agriculture is not romantic. It’s not perfect. It’s ever evolving and growing. But know this; it is essential, and the basic principle of how we do it is not going to change. So if you’re going to jump on a bandwagon, jump on ours. At least we have good food. (<-That was a joke, please laugh.)
Wash your hands, enjoy your properly cooked hamburgers and stay safe.
You can visit this page for more information about E.coli and how to avoid it.