Say No to Zero, Al


Dear Mr. Gore,

I know you're busy, but this is important. This is about food. This is about the government's misbegotten conviction that its "zero tolerance" policy can be applied to food safety.

We are told that safe food is a "right" and that zero tolerance for food poisoning is part of a "science-based" food safety strategy. But the most respected researchers here in the largest food-producing state in the nation dismiss the notion as nonsense.

Shirley Fannin, director of disease control for L.A. County's Department of Health Services, says, "I think that zero tolerance for risk only exists in people who want to sue or hold somebody responsible."

George West, a UC Davis epidemiologist with five decades of food safety experience, says, "I don't think that the term 'zero tolerance' has any scientific significance. It's a buzz phrase that's been put together for political reasons."

West is correct. The term gained currency in 1972, when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare announced "zero tolerance" for welfare fraud. The Navy then declared it for marijuana, Customs for drug smuggling, the Environmental Protection Agency for pesticide residues, the Food and Drug Administration for carcinogens and New York City for crime.

It took 21 years and a tragedy for it to catch on in food. In 1993 a contamination of Jack in the Box beef burgers with E. coli O157:H7 killed four and sickened more than 500.

An appalled public realized that a fast-food hamburger was, in fact, potentially deadly. Meat going into Jack in the Box burgers didn't necessarily have a herd of origin, a state or even a country. It might have come from California or it might have come from Australia, or even from both places, because once it is ground by the ton, it is impossible to track.

How could an untraceable problem be fixed?

The immediate answer: in the cooking. Jack in the Box had tried to serve its burgers rare. Thorough cooking would have killed the bacteria. "Juicy" and "safe" became contradictions in fast-food restaurants.

But the president who named the fast-food restaurant one of the crowning achievements of the 20th century wanted more. Under President Clinton, "zero tolerance" was dusted and polished faster than you can say "to go."

We are now testing for and finding E. coli O157:H7 regularly. Perhaps it has always been around; or it may be that meat is now being butchered in such vast quantities that quality control has plummeted and only the pathogen police can save us.

Whatever the reason, recalls of ground beef because of E. coli became, and remain, so common that there were seven in July alone, the largest of which involved 234,700 pounds of ground beef sold in 11 states.

No year made zero tolerance look better than 1996. In March, Britain descended into the mad cow crisis. In August, more than 6,000 were sickened and 10 died from an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Japan. Radish sprouts were suspected. By November, a child in Colorado was dead from E. coli O157:H7, this time from Odwalla apple juice. Within two years, zero tolerance had all but wiped fresh apple juice from America's lips.

Clinton is now so sure that he is on the right track that in the last term alone, he dedicated an Independence Day radio speech to E. coli in burgers, a pre-Memorial Day address to listeria in hot dogs and a pre-Christmas greeting to salmonella in eggs. He has even declared it a national goal to halve listeria incidence and banish a salmonella strain called S. enteritidis by 2010.

It doesn't seem to matter that we don't understand what these vilified bacteria actually do or whether banishing them is even possible. "The world is a total absolute continuum of life forms," says West of UC Davis. "They'll continue to be there. Some may have pathologic expressions under certain circumstances. To say you're not going to have any salmonella or E. coli is insane."

Insane or not, fresh-pressed apple juice must now carry a cigarette-style warning label. A similar one is due for fresh eggs, and Clinton's advisors are seriously advancing the notion that almost all the food we eat--milk, eggs, cheese, fruit juice, meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables--must undergo either pasteurization or irradiation.

Granted, there are a few bugs in the system that must be worked out before our food can be said to present zero risk.

" 'Irradiation' sounds good if you say it fast," says Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement at the University of Georgia. What he worries about are the "sensory properties."

"If you treat ground beef that has a high level of fat, you will create free radicals. That's what develops the off flavors," he says. He adds that irradiation takes the "crunch" out of lettuce.

But talk to public officials and technologists who are ardently backing almost blanket irradiation and they will tell you that safety steps may reduce eating pleasure but that we like what we get used to, and we'll get used to irradiated food.

Mr. Vice President, the upshot of all this is a message that fresh food is dangerous and processed food is safe. Take that to its logical conclusion and the safest thing is probably a Jack in the Box burger.

Some of the eating, food-loving and voting public remember when American food was not an international laughingstock but the envy of the world. This was not because of what we did to it but largely because of what we didn't do. The rough glory of our produce was nonpareil.

Stick with zero tolerance, and we will be known for rancid meat and limp lettuce.

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