The Hysteria about Listeria: Thoughts on Food in the Built Environment

About a month ago, listeria found in Sabra Hummus caused a massive food safety recall across the US. So I got to thinking — how common are pathogens in the food we eat and how is this addressed on industrial scales? Food is processed, transported, and eaten in our built environments multiple times a day, but rarely do we discuss food and the built environment together.
After a bit of research, I found food recalls to be a lot more common than one would imagine — in the past year numerous cases of listeria food poisoning alone were reported from ice cream, carmel apples, cheese, and even cantaloupes. When you bring E. coli (O157:H7), Salmonella, and Norovirus into the mix, it’s a wonder we aren’t always sick. While these common pathogens are found in dairy and meat, even gluten-free vegans are at risk from contaminated fruits and vegetables. Luckily, food poisoning is only a serious risk to the small subsection of our population who are immunocompromised.
On the contrary, I’m surprised that we aren’t sick more often. It is remarkable how animals raised in huge factory farm settings are processed into more or less sterile meat. Sure the industry has honed in on the most efficient practices to get uncontaminated meat, but what is often left out is that these facilities still have adverse affects on our health indirectly. And yes, I am bringing this back to antibiotic resistance. Author Barry Estabrook is the author of Pig Tales: An Omnivores Quest for Sustainable Meat. In his interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s fresh air on Tuesday, he comments on this very concern:

The vast majority of industrial pigs in this country are fed a steady low level of antibiotics in their food whether they are sick or not. The industry says it is a prophylactic measure to keep them from getting sick; other people will say that ‘no the industry just does that because it does make the pigs grow a little faster’. But the end result is the same: these conditions are ideal for the mutation of bacteria into bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, the type of bacteria that kill about 23,000 Americans every year according to the CDC. This is just the perfect incubator. You couldn’t create a better incubator in a laboratory than a building crowded with thousands of stressed animals that are being fed low levels of antibiotics every day.
– Barry Estabrook

In summary, yes, food recalls do happen but we can trust the food industry to deliver us uncontaminated food most of the time. We should not be creating hysteria about food recalls however, we should be concentrating our efforts to the other negative, less obvious effects of having industrial sized food facilities.

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Katherine Dahlhausen

Katie Dahlhausen is a PhD student in Jonathan Eisen’s lab and is interested in the biogeography and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance. Find out more at her Twitter feed .