It’s probably best that the speaker talked after the meal.
The meal was served at the recent Innovations in Food and Agriculture conference here in St. Louis. The speaker was Dr. Robert Tauxe, the head of the food-poisoning division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tauxe’s full title is Director, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, but I figured no one would want to read all of that.
Anyway, he’s the government’s go-to guy on foodborne diseases. Listening to him talk is an education on just how perilous it can be to eat.
Tauxe is an affable fellow, and he affably reeled off a bunch of absolutely stunning statistics: It is estimated that 48 million Americans, a little less than one in six people in this country, become sick every year from the food they eat. Each year, his department looks into 800 or so outbreaks of such foodborne illnesses as salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter.
Each year, around 3,000 Americans die from them.
The numbers are shocking and a little bit frightening, but there is good news. According to Tauxe, things are getting better. Improved methods of producing and processing food are reducing the chance that it will become contaminated, he said.
And when an outbreak occurs, improved logistics and data collection in the food processing industry make it easier for Tauxe and his colleagues at the CDC to figure out where it came from.
Tracking down the source of a foodborne illness involves a combination of detective work and science.
Patients come to their doctors complaining of various stomach ailments (Tauxe went into some detail about these symptoms, which is another reason it is best that he talked after dinner). If the doctor recognizes that the problem is not an ordinary virus, he informs the local health authorities, who put the information into a national database.
The CDC monitors this database, looking for an unexpected jump in the number of cases of any foodborne disease. If there is a spike in the incidence of a particular kind of ailment, they realize there might be a problem. The CDC analyzes samples of the virus to see if they came from the same strain — not all E. coli or salmonella are alike. If the same strain keeps showing up, the CDC alerts local health officials nationwide, who then spread out to interview the patients.
Usually, the health officials have to ask the patients about everything they ate two or three weeks before. With luck, more than a few will mention the same item, and the officials can then begin pinning down the source.
Tauxe cited a case in Alaska where dozens of people were determined to have come down with Campylobacter. Several of them mentioned that they had eaten fresh peas that had not been cooked (the label on the bag said they should be blanched, but it was small and hard to see). There is only one fresh pea farm in Alaska, so it was easy to trace the outbreak to it.
The farm is located next to a field where sandhill cranes like to land. CDC officials quickly linked the disease to the birds’ droppings, compounded by a lack of adequate sanitation at the farm. The farmer agreed to add a little chlorine to the water he uses to wash the peas, and the problem disappeared.
Last year, a major deadly, nationwide outbreak of E. coli was quickly traced to romaine lettuce. Further investigation showed that it stemmed from 23 farms along a single irrigation canal near Yuma, Ariz. Investigators never identified the original source of the bacteria, but subsequent testing in that area has all been clean.
Sometimes, though, the CDC just has to give up.
Kratom is a popular, legal and unregulated substance that many adherents claim is a wonder drug that helps to reduce pain and anxiety, and is an alternative to opioids. Some detractors say it can be addictive and is easily abused. One side of it that has been largely overlooked, though, is its danger in another way.
According to Tauxe, 52 percent of all kratom samples that were tested had salmonella in them. Last year, 199 people linked to kratom were sickened by salmonella, and 50 were hospitalized.
The problem is, it isn’t just one strain of the bacteria, which would indicate that it was all grown or processed at the same place, which could then be targeted. The problem comes from many different strains of salmonella, in what Tauxe called a “remarkable diversity of contamination.”
Kratom is imported from all over Southeast Asia by people and companies with varying degrees of knowledge, competence and professionalism. For many of the producers, Tauxe said, “quality control steps appear to be missing.”
The outbreak seems to be coming from everywhere at once. The CDC has closed its investigation because it was not able to identify a single, common source of contaminated kratom,” according to a CDC report.
Let the buyer beware.