If Darwin were correct, then 200 thousand years of foodborne illnesses should have sent the weakest of us to the grave; natural selection would have run its course – leaving only those that can stomach an order of spicy chicken and rice from the shadiest of New York City halal stands.
Unfortunately, foodborne illness remains a major threat. In 2011, over 127 thousand Americans were hospitalized from foodborne illnesses, and 3 thousand Americans died.
So where did Darwin go wrong? The answer is in food safety: we can reduce up to 50% of foodborne illnesses (Norovirus) by proper hand washing, and 11% of illnesses (Salmonella) can be reduced by separating raw and cooked foods. These facts added years to our lifespan.
However, food safety comes at a cost. As we play our part in reducing foodborne illness, we are going against the very laws of nature. In turn, we find ourselves eating more of the foods we commonly wouldn’t be eating, and sometimes, less of the foods we should be eating.
In 2010, in an attempt to cut illness associated with dining out, the NYC Department of Health unveiled restaurant letter grading, requiring restaurants to post letter grades summarizing their sanitary inspection scores. And this Thursday, the DOH returned with new regulations, in a move to promote sanitary practices by the City’s 5,000 street carts and food trucks.
And while the working class can safely eat from their favorite halal cart, pretzel stand or taco truck, little is done to promote the safe and healthy options that we often take for granted.
The City’s tap water campaign, for example, has slowly diminished – reduced to tacky mobile drinking stations, an iPhone app and a NYC-brand water bottle (that’s not even for sale). So who are we targeting? And each year, the City welcomes immigrants from Mexico, China, and other foreign countries – many of them carrying a set of deeply rooted fears of foodborne illness; even with acculturation in their new country, many immigrant remain hesitant of eating raw fruits and vegetables, or drinking tap water. So who is there to educate them?
More food safety phenomenons surface globally. As China and Russia expand their food market to rural areas, traditional outdoor markets are replaced by hygienic supermarkets. And as consumer confidence rises, so does exposure to aisles and aisles of processed foods.
In 2011, Salmonella infection in NYC fell to the lowest level in 20 years. However, what are the consequences of focusing all your efforts on prevention, but not promotion?
It seems that food safety can make, or break us, if we’re not careful.