Why Aren't We All Dead Yet?

How is it, that we are in mortal danger from raw eggs (i.e., salmonella), in lemon chiffon pies when people have been eating them (raw eggs, in one form or another) for so many centuries?

By extension, how is it that, suddenly, undercooked foods are such a threat to our health when the human race has been eating raw meat (and most other foods) for the entirety of its existence?

I’d appreciate it if someone would please provide a cite that proves we are undergoing a heretofore unprecendented epidemic of salmonella, trichinosis or E. coli, I’d like to know why the United States (not sure about Europe and Asia), is going so bonkers about food borne “pathogens”.

I am a firm believer in the danger of “anti-bacterial” soaps and cleansers. It has been documented that children who grow up in the homes of compulsive cleaners are much more likely to suffer from asthma. Similarly, there are certain antibodies that only come from exposure to good old dirt!

For fun, I have experimented on myself by eating food that has been stored in my refrigerator for 3-6 weeks. I keep the icebox set to a low temperature, but that is not a critical factor. Some of you may think that this is TMI but recently, I opened a pack of flour tortillas that had been misplaced in my pantry for over two months. They showed absolutely no sign of decay. I ate a few of them and suffered absolutely no distress whatsoever!

What is it that we Americans must throw out so much food? I have watched acquaintances throw out left over breakfast sausages just because they could not be bothered to wrap them up. Call me frugal, but I am unable to dispose of perfectly edible comestibles just because it is inconvenient. So sorry to be politically correct (something that I hate), but I consider it an insult to destroy edible food.

I have lived with compulsive cleaners and watched them repeatedly come down with illnesses when I would sail through with total immunity. I feel as though the biggest danger that faces us is an obsession with spotless surroundings that deprive us of any immunological challenge whatsoever.

Mind you that, more than a few times, I have thrown out what was probably perfectly good food just because I was not going to eat it before going on a trip or some such significant event. I just think that there is a hysterical attitude that most people have to food storage and exposure to germs.

If someone would only prove a solid connection of this behavior to anal-retentivism, that would suffice for me. I just think that it has gone farther than that and become some sort of obsession.

Your opinions please…

Ok, since it’s late, and there aren’t many of us out here, I’m going to take a stab at this. You’ll probably get better answers later.

First of all, I’m not a tidy person. If you’ve seen the odd couple, you know what it was like when I lived at home with my very tidy mom. She didn’t like me leaving my socks in the living room, because that looked messy. So one day I put them in a vase on the bottom shelf. I thought it was an excellent solution. When she found them, she laughed so hard that she couldn’t punish me. But she did tell me not to do it again!

I tell you this so you’ll know I’m not a compulsively clean person. But I do worry about contaminated food.

Some of the problems we have now are because of assembly line style food production. Someone who has a few chickens running free doesn’t have to worry too much about salmonella. But most of us buy eggs at the grocery store. These eggs come from chickens confined in close quarters with hundreds of other chickens. Disease spreads much more quickly and easily in these conditions. Also from a quick glance at the FDA page it seems there have been some rodent problems making things worse.

There is also a problem because large quantities of food are produced at a time. http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/fr980519.html - “Although most eggs are consumed individually, large numbers are sometimes pooled during the production or preparation of some foods. This increases the likelihood of SE being in the raw product. This potential was illustrated by a major 1994 SE outbreak attributed to ice cream. FDA reported the most likely cause was contamination of the pasteurized ice
cream mix by hauling it in a tanker improperly cleaned after carrying a load of unpasteurized liquid eggs. The ice cream mix was not heat treated after receipt from the contaminated tanker, and the ice cream was distributed widely.”

There are other problems when we get away from eggs and start looking at chickens. When chickens are slaughtered they are all put into one large vat. The blood from the dead chickens fills the vat. If one contaminated chicken is put in, all of the chickens can become contaminated with salmonella, or other pathogens.

The problem with hamburger meat is that in high speed slaughter houses the meat can be contaminated with fecal matter. Again, because such massive quantities are produced and mingled, one piece of contaminated meat can spread e. coli to huge amounts of ground beef.

Here’s a link to an interesting report by Consumer Reports Magazine. http://www.consumerreports.org/Special/ProductSafety/Reports/9910fod0.htm

Of course, we also have to consider the possibility that there’s always been a lot of deaths caused by eating raw and undercooked food. In the past many deaths were inexplicable. There used to be a very high mortality rate for children. Maybe large numbers of these deaths were because of salmonella. There’s no way to know. Certainly living in close proximity with animals wasn’t always healthy. Some modern researchers think that a common sheep parasite used to infect people who slept with sheep (not like that!). This parasite would infest the person’s brain and eventually cause death.

I agree with both the OP and the reply from lesa… to some extent…

But mainly, I think we throw away so much food because we CAN! Earlier civilizations didn’t have this option (as well as parts of the world extant today, BTW).

If there is a 1% chance of catching a disease from some questionable food, and you can throw it away with impunity and still have enough to eat, why chance it?

My fiancee takes this too far, however… she cleans out my fridge occasionally, and if I am not there at the time she will throw away everything that has a past due date (even if it’s a ‘sell-by’ date that has passed! Last week she shoved a container of yoghurt in my face and said [in Korean] “You gonna eat this tonight?” The sell-by date was the 14th, and that day was the 14th… I lied and said “yes!” so she wouldn’t throw it away… I still haven’t eaten it, but will in the next month or so…)
BTW, I agree with Chris Rock on this: regardless of health concerns (cholesteral, etc.), "If you are one of the lucky, chosen few on this planet to get your hands on a steak, BITE THE SHIT OUT OF IT!!

Thanks for the excellent points lesa. I completely agree with you that large scale slaughtering facilities are much more likely to diseminate E. coli. The grinding of intestinal oaffal and the like nearly guarantees this.

I still think that there is an over-reaction going on though. People lived without refrigeration for millennia before us. Why is it so important now?

Please contribute more if you wish.

I like you Astro!

There might be a cultural difference here too; I’ve noticed that most my friends from the US are almost compulsive about putting everything that will fit into little tupperware dishes and into the fridge for storage, even bread, where as most of my European friends may just wrap those items up and put it into a cupboard for a while. Of course, fridges in Europe are pretty small compared to American fridges too so you don’t have the option of saving so much stuff.

I do tend to think that these food scares are a recent occurence and probably due to modern production methods. You don’t need to go back hundreds of years and wonder if people were dying of salmonella back then; have a look at the '20s. Documentation was pretty good already and there wasn’t so much of a problem.

FYI, the reason we don’t have trichinosis on a large scale is because the disease is almost completely eradicated. There hasn’t been a case in the USA for almost 25 years, and that case was attributed to bad prosciutto consumed in Italy.
There are many other diseases that have basically been eradicated by farmers, like brucellosis. My grandfather was a USDA meat inspector for 50 years, I could tell you stories that make Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” look like Ronald McDonald Happy Burger Fun time. People used to get sick and die a LOT. But now, overall, we have a pretty good system. You don’t hear about people in the US freaking out about stuff like Mad Cow disease.

well, I agree that people are sometimes a little too paranoid. On the other hand, I don’t risk salmonella infection or e.coli…I just cook my meat pretty thoroughly. I make sure the chicken is cooked fully, as well as ground beef (since the threat multiplies a LOT with ground beef). I eat steak medium though…I have to have some pink in there. As far as soap, I don’t use antibacterial soap. I also am worried about ‘superbugs’ becoming more prominent. I am clean, but not compulsively by any means. I think you need to get some germs on your hands, in your body while you grow up…it helps develop an immune system. I am very rarely sick, and I think it’s because I didn’t wash my hands very often growing up. When they felt and looked dirty, I washed them. That was pretty much it.


Happily vegan here. :slight_smile:

This sort of question came up yesterday whilst I was making the holiday dinner…my mother-in-law was helping out in the kitchen, peeling pearl onions and cleaning brussels sprouts and like that.

I was mixing raw eggs into the stuffing and asked her why salmonella only has seemed to be an issue over the past ten years or so. She told me that back in the 1950s, they didn’t HAVE salmonella.

It’s possible that people who died of salmonella around 1955 were just chalked up to “heart failure.”

I like you Astro![/QUOTE}

Thanks Zen! sniff!

I have a warm, fuzzy feeling now… someone kill me something to eat!!

oops… didn’t close the quote right… damn this all meat and alcohol diet!!!

I agree to some extent with the OP and think lots of people are paranoid about things like raw eggs and overzealous cleaning. However, before getting to smug, it may be worth pointing out that approximately 2.5 billion people in the world are thought to be infested by worms and that many of these cases are indeed related to diet. The fact that few of these cases are in North America is one sign of how lucky we are to have higher standards. Trichinosis is not the problem it once was but pork tapeworm is still around and I highly doubt no cases have been see in the US in 25 years.

The reason we are not dead is that most people do have excellent immune systems able to handle parasites which are more interested in living off us than killing us, Salmonella poisoning is rarely fatal, and a little dirt generally never hurt anyone. We hardly evolved to spend life in a sterile room. Pedetricians are exposed to all sorts of crap and generally get sick less often than most other doctors or people. I wonder if cleaning so much actually increases the risk of problems, to some extent, independent of the chemical effects.

You bet it does Doc. I wish I had the patience to find a cite for how many of the asthma sufferers come from the homes of compulsive cleaners.

I believe that we are seriously degrading the appropriate challenges to our immune systems with all of these antibacterial cleansers and household products. They are marketed with a nearly hysterical attitude towards germs and what not.

I think everyone is being done a big disservice by this new trend.

I would tend to agree witht the OP, as well as the statement that people throw things out because they can, but something to remeber is that most cases of food poisoning are never realized. Had soft stool or diahrea lately? Most folks just write it off as a fluke and it goes away in a day or so. I sometimes wonder whether I’m running to the restroom because of the over-use of hot sauce or the under-cooking of the meat the night before, but again, I just chalk it up to “one of those things.”

The only time I know for a fact that I had food poisoning was freshman year of college. something like 1,500-2,000 students, including myself, got very ill a few hours after dinner. The next day, the university stated that a 24-hour flu was going around, yet everyone I knew that had been sick had eaten chicken or something (it’s been a few years)the night before, and those that didn’t, weren’t sick.

As for cleaning and increased sickness, I think this is a physical manifistation of the trend of over-protection by the parents during the childs youth leading to weakness in the childs developement. Ya’ gotta take some lumps and make mistakes to become self-assured/confident and you’ve got to catch some bugs to get a strong immune system.

On the Chris Rock theme: Don’t eat red meat? No, no, no. Don’t eat green meat!

In my years as a microbiologist I’ve worked with some of the nastier pathogens icluding E. coli H7:O157 (the enteric strain a.k.a the Jack In The Box strain) Legionella pneumophilia (Legionaires disease), Mycobacterium sp. (Tuberculosis and others), and *Yersenia * sp. (bubonic plague and others). I rarely get a bacterial infection.

The problems are (as I see them):

  1. Bad information. The average age of a E. coli fatality is roughly 30. That’s because those most at risk are over 70 and under 7 years old. So folks, if you aren’t in that age range, or immunocompromised, you can eat your burger medium (but thoroughly cook it for your kids)

  2. Knowledge. We know about these threats. The more you know, the more you worry. Think about it, if someone told you that you potato chip was a teeming mass of pathogenic bacteria wouldn’t you want to do something about it?

  3. Panic. It seems that you hear every week aboout a new mutant that doesn’t respond to the current antibiotics. This is, of course, exacerbated by the absolute demand for antibiotics for every illness.

  4. Americans (and I picking on us because I’m here and it’s my experience) inability to cope with their own mortality. After the advent of Sulfa drugs, then Penicillin, and now the current round of antibiotics, Americans think that the shouldn’t have to worry about these things. They think that medicine should fix it. After all if you can take the heart out of one guy and put it in another, why shouldn’t you be able to overcome a little bug trouble?

  5. More immunocompromised people living longer. Modern medicine has advanced to the point were people who would have died from their disease are now living with it. These people are prime targets for the opportunistic pathigen. These bacteria are are normally harmess in a healthy individual but can be quite deadly in one who is immunocompromised.

Personally, I don’t have antibacterial soap, I don’t have a single antibiotic, and (as I’ve said earlier) I eat my hamburgers medium, and my steak rare. I clean with bleach or alcohol and am rarely sick.

We are still around because of advances in medicine and lifestyle allow us to be. But I’m waiting for the next pandemic.

Don’t get too comfortable- you can get food poisoning too! And washing with soap and water won’t always help–



Excellent points bio-brat. I also think the media have had a hand in getting the populace worked up over pathogens.
Remember the “flesh-eating bacteria” scare a while back? (I grimace everytime I hear that phrase.) It sounded like some new alien menace out to depopulate the planet-no one ever stressed that it was a variant of Group A Streptococcus, which is what causes strep throat, and had been around for a long time.

As an aside, I’ve worked with pathogenic material on a daily basis for the last thirteen years and I’m rarely ever sick. Maybe a cold every now and then. Although it’s interesting to note that the first year I worked in the lab I did get sick as a dog after the first few weeks but I’ve been fine ever since.

(Incidentally, and totally off the point, it is pretty cool to hold a plate of typhoid or cholera in your hands-thrill of power I guess, human over microbe or something…or maybe I’m just loopy)

The first thing to understand is that salmonella gastroenteritis is, for the most part, not a big deal. The typical natural history starts with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea 1-2 days after ingestion. The diarrhea hangs on for 3-4 more days before it finally resolves itself within a week.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s no fun, but there seems to be a popular perception that getting salmonella from some undercooked chicken will kill you. Unless you’re somehow immunocompromised (AIDS, transplant patient, chemo, etc.), it just isn’t the case. I’ve had a case or two of it myself, and I’m none the worse for wear.

One reason that salmonella might be a problem more now than in the past is the increased time between barnyard and table. Back in the day, my great-grandmother (God bless her lard-laden soul) would have taken the bird from the pen to the chopping block to the skillet in one smooth process, not giving the salmonella any time to build up an army. Now, when you buy some chicken at Meijer, there’s no telling how long ago it was on the claw, and even though you can be reasonably certain (IMO) that it has been in sanitary and refrigerated conditions, sometimes it won’t have been.

People should wash their cutting boards, keep their chicken refrigerated, cook to decent temperatures, and stop worrying so freaking much about salmonella. If there’s one thing I wish people would stop doing, it’s overcooking chicken to the consistency of shoe leather to make sure they get every last little S. typhimurium. I’ll take my chances, thanks.

e. coli:
Each of you is, at this moment, teeming with e. coli. If you weren’t, you’d be having problems. It does occasionally decide to act up and cause a urinary tract infection or some gastroenteritis, but our relationship with the bug is largely symbiotic.

The e. coli that cause the big health problems you hear so much about are mutated strands, notably O:157, H:7 (referring to a particular protein in the capsule and flagellum, respectively). Those mutations cause the bacterium to wreak havoc on the gut.

Along with modern slaughterhouse and packaging techniques, this can be ascribed to the law of large numbers. We eat a lot of meat. A lot of meat means a lot of cows, which means a lot of e. coli, which means many such mutations. The number of people who get sick from the mutated bugs that make it through the processing and cooking processes becomes non-trivial. Then the mass media makes it look like people are dropping dead left and right from tainted beef, and suddenly you can’t get a medium rare burger anymore.

Once again, if you take the most intuitive of precautions, this isn’t something you should worry about.

Antibacterial soaps, etc.:
Zenster’s assertion does make sense. My personal opinion is that the truth lies somewhere between there and paranoia–the soaps don’t make a big difference one way or the other in normal home use, and “antibacterial” soaps and detergents are mostly an advertising gimmick.

Dr. J

I would guess that this is because of increased use of preservatives. (Supposedly, you will show “no sign of decay” years after you are dead as well.) It also helps that the package of tortillas was not opened and exposed to the molds, etc. in the air. If they had, they would have probably been moldy.

I was quite surprised to read in Dear Abby (or was it Ann Landers?) that you can store an opened jar of commercially-prepared mayonnaise in the cupboard and it won’t make you sick when you eat it. Mayonnaise! That’s preservatives for you. The correspondent’s in-laws had done that for years, and she was wondering why the heck they weren’t all dead yet!