Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Green Leafy Vegetables And Other Dangerous Foods

It looks like November is food safety month here at the Meow. Last week, after regaling you with tales of the family poultry farm where my husband learned the fine art of chicken catching as a boy (I didn't tell you that he knows how to hypnotize chickens--honestly, he does), I sent you to an article about the Kentucky Colonel's favorite bird and the diseases that roost in poultry, slipping past government inspectors on the way to your kitchen. Disease, you see, cannot always be detected via visual inspection, and many of the birds that grace your dinner table could make you sick if you don't make sure they are thoroughly cooked. You just can't tell by looking at a chicken what microorganisms have found a home there. One of the ways the article's author, John Stossel, proposed we address the problem of poultry contamination is irradiation, designed to kill even the bacteria that escapes detection, before the bird gets packed off to the supermarket. Stossel explains that for a variety of reasons, irradiation isn't common. Important safety changes are slow in coming to this industry, so chicken really needs to be cooked to death, after it has been butchered, for safety's sake. Let's put chicken on the scary but tasty list for now.

Joining chicken these days in warranting "Caution: Severe Potential Body Damage" warnings is spinach. We're just starting to be able to find Popeye's secret weapon in the stores again after an E. coli outbreak, which started a couple of months ago, was traced to fresh bagged spinach, which infected about two hundred people, causing three deaths. Revealing my own ignorance here, I've always thought of E. coli as a meat-borne illness, undercooked burgers and all that. I really didn't know you could get it from the plant kingdom, but I sure do now. Spinach salad is a staple in Meowville, and we've been particularly aware of the unavailability of this extremely important member of the food chain. Until this week, our green leafy vegetable of choice was nowhere to be found. That made us sit up and take notice.

We are glad to have our favorite back, but I'm not ready to just return to my pre-spinach-drought state of ignorance. I have wanted to know how the infection got to the plants in the first place, how it spread, and why all the washing, that is the primary reason for buying bagged spinach, didn't do its job and cleanse away the germs. Some answers are coming out now; it's starting to look like the infection invaded spinach crops in California because wild hogs found their way onto farms in Salinas Valley. Okay, that answers how the plants got "defiled." (It's the best word I can think of to describe the ruination of perfectly good spinach.) So, how did the E. coli make it past the packaging plant?

Dr. Henry I. Miller, of TCS Daily, says that washing sometimes simply can't do the job of ridding produce of disease, because the germs aren't on the surface of the produce, they're inside it. Miller says, "Exposure to E. coli or other microorganisms at key stages of the growing process may allow them to be taken into the plant and actually incorporated into cells." Even the irradiation, which Stossel recommends for meat, and Miller agrees is an important tool, can't deal with all the complications from infection, because some bacteria secrete toxins which remain even after irradiation has eliminated the germs themselves. These toxins can make you sick no matter how dead their germy progenitors are. What's Miller's solution? Biotechnology.

I've often discussed Miller's TCS articles here, and frequently the focus of his writing has been the ever-expanding and much-debated field of biotechnology, or gene-splicing, as it is more descriptively labelled. Repeatedly he has come down on the side of the safety and efficacy of gene-splicing to introduce desirable traits into plants. He's explored the concept of biopharming, altering plants so that you can, in effect, grow drugs to meet pharmaceutical needs. It's basically programming plants. (If you want to find more post and links to Dr. Miller and biopharming, just do a search at the top of this page. Blogger will list for you the four or five other posts I've done on Dr. Miller's articles.) Miller describes the benefit to be found in addressing the problem of infected food with biotech, but, as usual, also acknowledges the objections that inevitably go hand in hand with such an approach:

There is technology available today that can inhibit microorganisms' ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. This same technology can be employed to produce antibodies that can be administered to infected patients to neutralize the toxins, and can even be used to produce therapeutic proteins that are safe and effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.

But don't expect your favorite organic producer to embrace this triple-threat technology, even if it would keep his customers from getting sick. Why? The technology in question is biotechnology, or gene-splicing -- an advance the organic lobby has vilified and rejected at every turn.

Read Dr. Miller's article for more about this current spinach situation and its implications, and more of the posts here if you want to follow up further on what he has to say about gene-splicing. He comes down very firmly on the side of pro-biotech, but does address in some detail the issues and problems that others raise with ongoing development in this burgeoning industry. He's gradually been winning me over to the idea that manipulating genes to introduce desirable outcomes can be safe and effective, if proper care is given to how the technology is used, and a firm set of precautions is in place. I wasn't always this sanguine about it, thinking, basically, that God knew what He was doing when He made things, and who are we to mess with them, but I've really come, over time, to see these genes they are manipulating as God-made building blocks, that get shifted around all the time in nature. Shifting them is not inherently dangerous or wrong, but it does require a great deal of wisdom to know what's appropriate and what's not. It's interesting to me watching where the science is heading. I still say they need to keep their hands off people, but making spinach safer so I don't ever have to face another spinach fast? I think there I'm cautiously in favor of ongoing research.