Monday, 15 July 2024

Foodie Freak: Only you can stop the zombies, or food safety




I’ll admit upfront that I have all of the “Resident Evil” movies on DVD and my daughter and I play the zombie based video game “Left 4 Dead” regularly. So I’ll also say up front that while the facts in this column about food safety are true, the conclusions I make are just for fun and only because I have a lot of zombie references in the forefront of my mind.

Food safety is very important, and we here in the U.S. have some of the safest, healthiest food on the planet thanks to the regulations set by the Food & Drug Administration.

In recent years though, we have seen some odd illnesses crop up that are foodborne. I don’t want to scare people about their food, I just want them to understand more about it.

To make it topical, the H1N1 virus, or “Swine flu,” is an adaptation of a known swine flu virus and a bird flu virus that mutated together to affect humans. While H1N1 is an airborne illness, these types of mutations and adaptations happen all of the time to food-borne viruses too, so I think we have to start worrying about ... that’s right, the Zombie Apocalypse!

Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE), more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease, could be the thing that brings the Zombiepocalypse down upon us all (hey, if "unfriend" can be a real word in the dictionary so can "Zombiepocalypse").

Most people aren’t aware of this, but the most common way that cows contract BSE is by eating the brains of a cow that is already infected. I can hear you now, “Whoa, Whoa, WHOA! Cows eating cow brains? How does that happen? Are they zombie cows?” No, not zombie cows … not yet at least.

In an attempt to boost the protein in the cows’ feed to bulk up the cow and get more meat and also to stretch the expensive feed further, the waste parts of slaughtered cows (brains, spinal cord and any non-marketable bones) are cooked, ground and mixed in with regular cow feed and fed to the remaining herd. Since the incubation period for BSE is typically four years it’s very difficult to tell if you are accidentally feeding a diseased animal to a healthy herd.

Luckily in North American cattle ranches this isn’t a common practice and the extra protein in the cows’ diet is usually provided through the use of soy meal. However in Europe where soybeans don’t grow as well these cooked cow floor sweepings are the usual supplement, which is why BSE is more common in Europe. Soy meal is expensive there and dead cow parts are not.

Another reason the BSE outbreaks happened so often there is that the U.K. lowered the required sterilization temperature of the cow meal, possibly making it easier for the infectious agent (technically a prion) to survive the sanitation process. By lowering the safety standards they put the public at risk.

Vegetarianism is looking better, isn’t it?

Food safety regulations are constantly being changed. One president and Congress lowers standards in order to influence trade, while the next president and Congress will raise the standards for public safety. President Obama has stated that, as a father, our nation’s food safety is a primary concern to him. Right at this moment, Senate bill S510, the Food Safety Modernization Act is being discussed. This bill, while being a good step towards some much needed revisions, is unfortunately being written by people who don’t work in the field.

While it does give the FDA more authority to inspect food processing facilities and order recalls, one big problem in the FSMA is that it applies a single package of regulations to the food safety problem that could put small and midsize sustainable farmers, not the huge food manufacturers that are responsible for most food recalls, out of business.

Smaller producers usually have smaller risk of contamination of their produce or infection of their stock, and therefore should not be treated the same as large production facilities. They also generally don’t have the large financial base to make what are expensive and unnecessary food tracking modifications to their operations that may be required of them should this bill pass and be signed into law.

Currently the FDA can only recommend a producer enact a recall when a food safety problem arises, while this law will allow the FDA to enact one on their own authority. Food producers will pay for this increase in FDA enforcement with a special annual fee.

Somebody better at reading government bills could probably explain this all better than I can. There is much more to this bill, but I just want to give you enough information to get you involved.

In general, it is safer to purchase food from local growers and producers. Great resources are farmer’s markets and locally owned grocery stores that purchase from local suppliers. Ask questions about the origins of your food. Be sure to wash all your produce thoroughly. These are some positive steps you can personally take to ensure the safety of your food.

In another science fiction-like twist to the story, a biotechnology company in South Dakota claims to have genetically engineered cattle that are immune to BSE, so they can still be fed the cow-brain feed. Better living through science!

Here’s my pitch to George Romero – well maybe not Mr. Romero, more likely the SyFy Channel:

We open in the British countryside ...

“Genetically engineered cows that are now immune to BSE contract it, and due to their unique genetics actually develop an addiction to brains. Since it takes so long for the symptoms to develop nobody suspects anything until it’s too late and some of the cows have already gone to slaughter!

Now, not only does our hero have to retrieve the tainted meat from the consumer before it’s too late, but due to lower food tracking safety rules he won’t make it in time. Meanwhile, on page 34 of your script, the cattle that didn’t go to slaughter are now in a craze for more brains. They have eaten the rancher, his family, and all the ranch hands, and are now wandering the countryside looking for more. We can add some dark humor to the situation by having the cows come across a group of vegetarians who are quickly consumed by the manic beasts.

Then, at the White House (go to page 67 of your script), the government will claim that plenty of the anti-virus is in production, they will be inoculating everyone soon and there will be nothing to worry about” Panting, excuse me while I catch my breath for a moment. “Of course we know that this is completely untrue, and that because of the lax food safety tracking they haven’t even figured out how this happened yet. People are infected, animals are infected, and both are out searching for more brains. Eventually infected people fly out of the UK, animals make their way through the Chunnel, and the world is doomed to the Zombie Apocalypse.”

What do you think? I can have some storyboards drawn up in a couple of days ...

Okay, maybe that scenario is pretty far-fetched, but the truth is we have outbreaks of E. coli and BSE and salmonella and H1N1, all because we keep raising and lowering our food safety standards to meet the needs of some large food processors that donate to a political campaign, then we encourage countries with lower food safety standards to send their food here.

I encourage you to be aware of the changes in food safety regulations, and to contact your government representatives with your opinions. Only you can stop the zombie apocalypse!

Barbara Boxer

112 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510


Dianne Feinstein

331 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510


You can also contact you local House member. For Lake County residents:

Congressman Mike Thompson

231 Cannon Office Building

Washington, DC 20515


My pantry is currently full, so all I need is a source for concertina wire and I’ll be ready for the hoards of zombies. OK, maybe my daughter and I have been playing too much “Left 4 Dead.” and now we have “Left 4 Dead 2.”

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, .

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