Last month, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms initiated a recall of more than 500 million eggs due to the presence of salmonella bacteria. The subsequent media environment was rife with information of varying degrees of usefulness and veracity. I had been wanting to talk with Dr. Douglas Powell, author of food safety website Barfblog for a while, so we spoke a couple of weeks ago about the egg recall and other issues related to foodborne illness.
Dr. Powell is an associate professor of Food Safety at Kansas State University where he has spearheaded the Barfblog for more than five years. He brings a uniquely scientific and rational voice to the act of purchasing, eating and preparing food. His views on food safety have little place for politics, rather they are framed by biological training, which has little room for the feel-good assertions of the organic and local food movements.
Dave LaCrone: What do you think the point of the egg recall issue is? I’ve heard people decrying factory farming and mass distribution, some people say “I’m glad I eat organic eggs.” What is your perspective?
Douglas Powell: That has nothing to do with food safety and things that make people barf. Your backyard eggs are going to have salmonella just as much as your factory farm does. All I’ve seen is political and legal opportunism at this point. People take whatever they see and use it to fit their political lens, whether it’s “I want federal legislation passed,” or “I want organic food,” and there’s really not a whole lot of discussion of biology.
DL: In other words these kinds of risks are inherent pretty much in any kind of egg all the time.
DP: Yeah, and they always have been. Since the recall you have all these consumer warnings that say you should always eat fully cooked eggs. But you look at the egg people’s literature and they have loving pictures of hollandaise sauce and poached eggs that are barely cooked. They come out now and say “no we’ve always said that” and I’m like “bullshit, you did!”
DL: Is there anything we or the government can do?
DP: I have low expectations of government. I find it amusing that people want to give government more authority, the same people who screwed up Katrina, screwed up the oil well. Why is that a solution? I don’t get it.
DL: Well then do you think corporate self-regulation is a solution?
DP: No, it’s not an either/or. My solution would be the buying power of individual consumers. What I would like to see is these egg companies or spinach producers, whoever…advertise their microbial food safety record right there on the package. I don’t care if it’s natural, if there’s a picture of a farm or if it was lovingly raised. I want to know if it’s gonna make me barf.
There have been so many outbreaks over the last few years that I think a lot of soccer moms and other parents who go to the grocery store might be interested in eggs that have lower levels of salmonella, or spinach that is e-coli free.
There are billions of meals served every year where people don’t get sick, so obviously they are doing something right. Why not market it? But they won’t because that would imply that other food is unsafe. Well guess what? Other food is unsafe! The best way the consumers can act is through their buying power. Right now they are doing it through the B.S. organic stuff. They are being held hostage by people who don’t make direct claims about food safety but hint at it. Why else do you think they buy natural or local?
DL: Well I think there are a lot of reasons but I do think it’s a burgeoning thing with parents of young children, especially upper middle-class parents that think that it’s more healthy and safer to eat organic.
DP: Yeah, I have a 20 month old, does that mean I’m a bad parent for shopping at a grocery store?
DL: Yes, well I think that is a supposition for many people, but you’re a biologist and they are not, so you have a different perspective
DP: [Organic producers] don’t’ say “we have lower levels” but they hint at it and the language you used is exactly the language they use in all of these advertisements like “if you care about the environment” or “if you care about the health of your children.” It’s a guilt factor and it’s crazy, there’s nothing to back it up. And they charge more for it!
DL: I have to ask if your knowledge bleeds over into your choice of where you eat and what to eat? Are there foods you won’t buy or you won’t eat when you go out?
DP: Not much. I have five kids so I have been doing this for a while. I go to the biggest supermarket I can find because they usually have the quality assurance programs that are demanding of their suppliers: “If you’re gonna sell food in my Wal-Mart you have to meet these microbial standards.” But I have a PhD in food science so most other shoppers don’t know about that, and I think that’s a shame. I know the head of food safety at Wal-Mart, they have a very good program. Does anyone who goes to Wal-Mart know that? No.