Not All Microbes Are Bad

2-17-14 Lafayette, CO

The Potential Downside of Increased Government Involvement in Food Safety

 The FDA has been increasingly involved in food product recalls that have made the headlines in recent years. No product appears to be immune; from bean sprouts and spinach to peanut butter and pet food. A recent online Harris Poll concludes, "Nearly Three-Quarters of Americans Looking to Government for More Food Safety Oversight". [1]  The American public appears to correlate the increased recall activity with a decline in overall food safety. Before we collectively draw that conclusion however, we should ask ourselves what is really driving most these recalls?

Some of the most sensational stories of food recalls seen in the news are related to pathogen contamination. Pathogens are infectious microbes found throughout nature that  can make us ill. The CDC estimates 1 in 6 Americans (48 million) become ill each year from food borne diseases related to pathogenic contamination. [2] There are many pathogenic microbes that, when found in food will prompt the FDA to recommend a recall. However, the microbe most frequently making headlines is commonly referred to as Salmonella. Otherwise healthy adults, when ingesting small amounts of salmonella bacteria, usually experience mild intestinal discomfort and are in little danger. For those that have weakened immune systems such as the very young or old, acquiring a case of salmonellosis can be more virulent or even deadly. Protecting this group has been the inspiration behind an increasingly aggressive regulatory stance by the FDA towards pathogen contamination in food. Some interesting dichotomies are emerging as a result of the increasingly strict interpretation of its mandate by the FDA.

Most pet owners are familiar with the concept that when it comes to exposure to pathogens, pets appear to play by different rules. For example, while it is an accepted practice to give a dog a raw bone to gnaw on and think no further of it, our minds would immediately rebel at cooking meat for our families consumption that has been stored at room temperature for days on end.

In spite of the blological differences between pets and humans, FDA regulatory policy towards food-borne pathogen contamination addresses pet food and human food equally. To support this stance, the FDA cites the potential cross-contamination of pathogens from pets and their food to humans. A recent study, however, published in the journal Pediatrics seems to contradict concerns about pet-human cross-contamination.[3]  In fact, the study reports infants that grow up in homes with a pet - namely a dog or a cat - are actually less likely to get sick than children who live pet-free. This bolsters a growing attitude that living in an extremely sanitized environment is ultimately not beneficial to overall health.

When following the trail of pathogen contamination in pet food to its source, it invariably leads to meat produced for human consumption. While the FDA does not tolerate pathogen contamination of any kind in pet food, the USDA permits pathogens to contaminate a large percentage of the meat we take home from the grocery store to feed our families. Consumer Reports states as recently as 2010, nearly three-fourths of the broiler chickens as tested in grocery meat cases yielded positive results for contamination by either salmonella or its more virulent cousin, campylobacter. [4]  The USDA maintains that if cooked properly, meat for human consumption is perfectly safe.  However, potential cross-contamination accidents can occur with meat purchased from the grocery store in spite of directions to wash hand and preparation surfaces thoroughly. So why the double standard between pet food and human food?.    

Rather than being irresponsible, USDA policies that tolerate the presence of pathogens in meat & poultry may offer a more balanced approach to the role that all microbes play in our lives. Human beings harbor up to an estimated 1300 different microbes in the digestive tract. These microbes are referred to collectively as "gut flora". Current research indicates that rather than being passive hitchhikers, many of these microbes offer a wide range of benefits to their hosts, including an increased resistance to pathogens. [5]  Today, gut flora in the human digestive tract is under siege. Most of us no longer harbor widely diverse colonies of beneficial microbes in our guts . The use of antibiotics is credited with helping to deplete gut flora - further exacerbating the problems caused by an increasingly sterile food supply. George Orwell (author of "1984"), were he alive today no doubt would appreciate the irony behind a professional actress appearing in yogurt commercials with a message that our bowels will become more regular by simply eating the product. These products are designed to replenish in our guts some of the microbes that "big brother" FDA regulatory policies have helped to accidentally eradicate.

The FDA's increasingly strict interpretation of its mandate on food safety does not address the removal of beneficial microbes from our lives. More studies on populations of gut flora and their role in overall health and immunity to disease are needed. Efforts by the FDA and others to eradicate pathogens from our food and environment are certainly intended to protect public health.  Future generations will not thank us, however, if these efforts ultimately help to weaken our  collective immunity to the very microbes that are targeted for elimination.

NOTE: Per FDA Regulations on pet food safety, all DNA Ancestral food products are heat-treated to destroy any potential pathogen contamination. A "positive release" system of testing has been implemented at the manufacturing level. No product is released for sale without first testing negative for pathogen contamination by an outside, independent laboratory.

Bibliography

[1] Nearly Three Quarters of Americans Looking to Government for More Food Safety (harrisineractive.com) http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/Read...

[2] Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States (cdc.gov) http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden

[3] Study: Why Dogs and Cats Make Babies Healthier (TIME Health & Family) http://healthland.time.com/2012/07/09/study-why-dogs-and-cats-make-babie...

[4] How Safe is Chicken? (Consumer Reports.org) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/05/how-safe-is-that-chicken/inde...

[5] Gut Flora (Wikipedia - multiple sources referenced) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gut_flora