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Monday, September 25, 2006 |
Risk Analysis

I get tired of hearing people talk about spinach nowadays. It was fun for the first couple of days, making jokes about how dangerous it was, but then it dawned on me that for a lot of people, it wasn't really a joke.

The sad part is that this appears to be part of the recent march in waves of panic that have washed over our fair land in recent years. The maddenning panic over anthrax, where people were busting into doctor's ofices to grab Cipro; the mad rush for duct tape in case of some amorphous chemical/radiological/biological attack; and now the mad spinach panic of 2006. Maybe it's just me, but it seems that we seem to suffer from a social allergic reaction. Now that the Cold War is over, and the world really isn't coming to an end, we overreact to minor dangers in irrational ways.

In the case of spinach, the sad part is that nobody seems to understand that we live in a new world, a post Jack-In-The-Box world of dangerous E.Coli. Jack in the Box should have been the alarm that changed everything, but of course it wasn't. The problem was improper cooking, the fault was sloppy slaughterhouses, the danger lay in Jack in the Box. Which is all true, and completely wrong too.

The problem lies in one single strain of E.Coli, and how we've built an agro-industrial complex that just happens to be the perfect envionment for it to breed in. We feed beef corn to fatten them up faster and fatter, conveniently ignoring the biology of a cow and how thousands of years of breeding and evolution has built it for eating grass. The chemistry of the cow's stomach, a wonderfully complex and messy thing at that, changes so that it produces nothing but poisonous E.Coli. We breed hundreds of thousands of cows to satisfy our hunger for cheap beef, and the E.Coli is someone else's problem, especially if they happen to be downstream. And on the flipside, thanks to fertilizers and pesticides and triple washed salad, we make food so "safe" we forget the basics about food safety.

And now we've come to learn that just like roaches, rats, and pigeons, E.Coli has found a perfect place to live, and that place is amongst us.

This isn't the first time we've been bitten hard. Jack in the Box. Tainted scallions. Tainted water at several state fairs. Basic food safety must be followed, and even then there are no more guarantees. Anything raw should be washed. Thoroughly. Anything cooked should be cooked. Thoroughly. Any deviations, and you're taking on additional risk. And these risks aren't new, Salmonella isn't a sexy exotic disease, but I'd wager that if you run the numbers it's just as deadly, and it's been a problem for decades.

I see people talking about how they'll not eat spinach for months, even if the stuff clearly came from a farm in New Jersey, 1,000 miles away from the current contamination point. And as they talk, they're busy stuffing themselves with undercooked hamburger or salad-in-a-bag that hasn't been washed.

Not that I really should get too upset over that anyway, because unless you're really unlucky, it's not the spinach that'll get you in the end. It's not the terrorists, or the anthrax, or the stingrays, or the illegal guns. It's going to be the daily drive to work. It's going to be shovelling the snow. It's going to be that donut. That single gram of saturated fat you're not going to burn today, and one you'll pick up tomorrow, and the day after that.

Damnit. Now I feel like having a donut.

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