Michael Booth & Jennifer Brown – “Eating Dangerously”

Eating Dangerously thumbnailYou get what you pay for. You reap what you sow.

As eaters who depend on the giant trough built by mass production and mass distribution and the notion of no seasons (strawberries in February, but of course), we are increasingly at risk of ingesting a sub-microscopic morsel that could transform an otherwise healthy fad vegetable into junk food and threaten our health and maybe our life.

Eating Dangerously, in quick slice-and-dice fashion, presents a prosecution as tight as the Zip-Loc bag trying ward off the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the back of your fridge.

Eating Dangerously dips briefly into the same contaminated waters as The Omnivores Dilemma (Michael Pollan) and Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser). The meat packer hasn’t been an appetizing place to visit since The Jungle (Upton Sinclair). But Eating Dangerously makes it painfully clear that meat isn’t the only place that shoppers should cast a wary eye and details the many ways in which our safety infrastructure provides a defense that’s about as sturdy as, well, a wet paper towel. Or leafy green. After consuming Eating Dangerously, you may view the produce section as warily as you look for off-color spots beneath the plastic wrap on the shelves of ground chuck.

“For all the spotlights trained on slaughterhouses during years of disturbing headlines about meat, from 2006 through 2011 U.S. consumers learned more about potential pathogens in previously innocuous foods such as melon and peanut butter,” write co-authors Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown.

Eating Dangerously rises above the killing floor horror show and the corporate greed of the meat processors to demonstrate that the safety guards we have put in place are woefully inadequate. Worse, they aren’t being shored up; they are being shredded by budget pressures. Even when the process is followed and a bad ingredient is traced back to the cattle poop that taints a spinach crop or careless (reckless) peanut farmers, government officials aren’t always forthcoming to consumers. The authors walk through out a frightening case in which the U.S. government failed to identify a well-known fast food chain by name (Taco Bell), despite the ample evidence that led to its doors. The Taco Bell saga is yet another opportunity to think that corporate power overrides consumer needs—and government officials buckle at the mere mention of legal challenges. The book charts budget reduction after budget reduction that have reduced the ranks of inspectors and watered down the illusion, weak to begin with, that safeguards are in place.

“Let’s say for argument’s sake, the FDA in some magical year in the near future actually gets the modernization budget it asks for, and get it in time to fill all the new positions before the next budget battle begins. How many people would that be? Remember, the FDA’s oversight of 80 percent of the American food supply means responsibility for 350,000 food factories, warehouses, and farms. Then curb your enthusiasm with the number of new full-time domestic inspectors requested in the 2013 budget: exactly nineteen. The FDA said those gains would be multiplied many times over by partnerships with state and local health agencies. Meanwhile, as Congress confronted plummeting revenue and entrenched budget battles from the 2008 recession onward, states and counties let go of 20 percent of their health departments’ workforce. The recession’s toll? A devastating attrition of more than thirty-four thousand jobs.”

The pathetic state of the inspection system should be a Page One headline for about a month. As the authors mention, when it’s generally assumed that your packaged chicken is contaminated in Salmonella and when all the safety precautions are placed squarely on the home cook (and not the processors or distributors or grocers) something has gone strangely awry.

Eating Dangerously breaks down what went wrong in the Colorado cantaloupe Listeria outbreak that led to the deaths of 33 eaters (and sickened many more). The fragile safety system’s use of “auditors”—paid for by the farmers themselves—gives a fresh imagery to the idea the fox can guard the henhouse. While the oversights suggest ineptness rather than greediness in this melon case, the way in which safety checks are structured hardly looks good on paper, let alone the light of day.

Eating Dangerously is written in a brisk, efficient style (with a dollop of humor and razor wit). The talents of two hard-nosed, experienced reporters are obvious. The tone isn’t confrontational, only expository. The book wraps up with helpful chapters on shopping and managing your foodstuffs once you’ve returned from your grocery store. Given the risks involved, these chapters alone are worth the price. You’ll learn a few things about how to ruin a pathogen’s day.

Bottom line: the food safety pipeline is busted. We stand at the end of that pipeline with our mouths open and our food thermometers out (right, people?). We have a major role to play in protecting our innards and the guts of anyone we choose to feed. The food safety system we have in place today is the one we want, given our unwillingness (on one end) to pay taxes and our apparent demand (on the other end) for cheap food in every variety and at all times of year. We stand in the kitchen, the last defense in the battle to keep our meals safe and healthy, and it’s always a good idea to know your enemy—and the lack of assistance being delivered by the good guys.

Full disclosure that Michael Booth is a friend but I stand by every word of this review.


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