Friday, April 6, 2012

What’s Making Us Sick?


Health and safety groups reissued a list of the Ten Most Deadly Outbreaks of Food and Waterborne Illnesses in U.S. History, and a quick look at the causes makes me wonder how any of us kids made it out alive when we grew up in our rural community.

And rural it was. In second grade, the teacher asked, “How many of you are town kids?”  Answer: Three of twenty-two.  Three lived in the urban sprawl of our small Iowa town, population 511.  The rest of us were rural kids dealing with all the germs, toxins, and pollutants the farm could throw at us.  We grew up in the 1960s Mad Men Era, but without the high-rise offices, expensive suits, and sparkling cocktail glasses. 

Back to the “Deadly List.”  Typhoid from polluted water ranks one and two according to the Health Association, with both outbreaks occurring in the early part of the twentieth century and both in New York state. Maybe those easterners hadn’t built up an immunity.  From early on, creeks and ponds were our playgrounds, and they came equipped with hot and cold running cow pies, rusty barbed wire, and whatever flowed out of the field tiles.  Whether fishing, wading, or building dams, we were in the creek as much as out of it on hot summer days. On occasion, if the water was cool and looked clean, we probably even drank it.

Number three on the food outbreak list involves raw milk back in 1911, with 48 deaths.  We kids only drank raw milk when we were milking and one of us would aim a teat and fire at his brother.  Unlike the barn cats, we didn’t appreciate the warm, sticky shot to the face.  My folks pasteurized the milk, but I drank as little as possible.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t enjoy the milking chores, and maybe it’s because of the globs of cream at the top of each pitcherful.  Raw, pasteurized, whole?  Farm boy or not, I’ll take store-bought skim milk.

Some fruit and vegetables made the deadly list, but I don’t recall any problems eating strawberries or carrots straight out of our garden. However, I will admit a binge on mulberries was a certain recipe for diarrhea.  But that was self-induced, and I don’t know of any locals dying from mulberries.

A few cases of tainted meat also make the top ten, but our meat on the farm was probably too “local” to harm us.  We could feed grain to the chickens one day and watch them frying in the skillet the next. Dad would pick out one good looking steer in the feedlot, and you could almost see the labels on its side marked sirloin, hamburger, and rump roast.

One unusual qualifier on the list is cheese; a 1985 listeria outbreak from cheese killed 22.  During high school, I worked at a small, locally owned cheese factory, so I saw the “sausage-making techniques” of cheese production. I remember “shoveling” or stirring the whey-like substance in huge vats as it “set.”  One day when the boss was gone, a couple of older workers threw Albert, tennis shoes and all, into the vat.  It must have added to the flavor.  The cheese factory won awards for its products.

The FDA and others publish useful lists about how to avoid food and waterborne illnesses. And CAST has published a related paper and video presentation: Food Safety and FreshProduce: An Update.   It’s a serious matter.  I just wonder if we were inoculated with luck or ignorance back in the era when salmonella, E.  coli, and streptococcus were little more to us than medical terms hidden in the back of our science textbooks. by dan gogerty (photo from ars)

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