Frightening foods give good lessons

You have to eat. But after the news early this week, I skipped the burger with the mixed green side salad and the glass of carrot juice to wash it all down.

Each was front and center in the latest food recall parade, a don't-buy-don't-eat sashay through our psyches.

My mind is not the problem. It's my stomach. I get hungry.

I find both comfort and fear in the latest food supply dustup, started a couple weeks ago when spinach went south. A few hundred consumers became sick and three - two elderly women and a 2-year-old - died after eating the leafy green, tainted with E. coli.

Given that packaged spinach is grown in one place, washed and assembled in another and then shipped to hundreds of others, it amazes me that investigators can find where the problem began. One bag of spinach may have leaves from several fields.

I'm not only amazed but also reassured that the source of any contamination can be pinpointed after all those processes, after all those wilted spinach salads, after all that quiche. It's a tracking system that could date needles and haystacks as a usable analogy.

That said, the haystack is still winning; the specific cause for the outbreak remains unknown.

Which brings me to the fear.

Nobody wants to eat poison, the kind that rips your insides apart, then potentially kills you.

But you have to eat.

I have been the grocery shopper in my home for nearly 30 years. That's what happens when you are unsuccessful at laundry ("What do you mean separate whites and colors?") or equally inept with the daily dishes ("Waiting for a fifth day saves that much more hot water, dear").

So buying the best food at the lowest prices with the least chance of fostering death is my responsibility.

Carting around the produce or meat aisles doesn't mean I can detect untainted food from the bad stuff, however. Or the right laundry detergent from the wrong for that matter. (That's why a cell phone is as handy as a grocery list.)

But then, what grocery shopper carries the chemical detection equipment to determine E. coli or any other nasty?

My guess is that the average consumer (or below-average like myself) pays attention to food quality, but recalls and E. coli outbreaks do not keep them from their appointed rounds.

Plus, if anything will improve the food supply, it will be demand. Consumers will dictate what is on the shelf and what isn't - and it's quality. Price is one thing, but I know no one who would compromise safety to save a few pennies.

That's why the latest food scare once again reminds us that just because we can order a burger and fries through a window and have it ready 90 seconds later; or just because we can get fruit two days after it was picked on the West Coast; or just because salads we used to make with a sink full of ingredients now come in a single bag; or just because we buy any of the other food conveniences to match our fast-paced lifestyles doesn't mean safety is guaranteed.

Great strides have been made in the food supply, but if contemporary food scares tell us anything, it is that nothing is 100 percent.

Still, if we have paid attention, we know what temperature the burger must reach. We know putting together the Cobb salad on the same counter where we just chopped the sirloin can be a problem. We read about eggs and cooking and the joys of salmonella.

In short, most consumers are wiser today about food and the food supply because of wicked things like E. coli, listeria or the aforementioned salmonella.

The good news is the decline in the last decade of E. coli cases, although a little spike occurred a couple years ago. The bad news is that some people still get very sick from the foods they buy. A few even die.

As we grow accustomed to further food recalls, somewhere between investing thousands in a personal food pathogen detection system and keeping the meat and dairy in the pantry is a reasonable place for the American consumer, who, as we know, has to eat.

George Ayoub is a columnist for the Grand Island (Neb.) Independent. E-mail him at george.ayoub@morris.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.