Oftentimes when we talk about the importance of food safety, we bring up victim cases; devastating accounts of individual families whose lives were forever changed by a horrific illness. Even more so, us in industry attend meetings and go to training that reinforces CDC’s “1 in 6” statistic, or the roughly 3,000 people that will die this year. We leave thinking “obviously this is a public health emergency” and that we can improve quality of life for everyone if we could simply give out more thermometers, convince people to stop eating raw oysters or milk, and have mandatory vaccinations and 100 days of sick leave under surveillance for food service workers…
…but where does this actually land in terms of risk? Where do we prioritize this as a public health initiative? 1 in 6 people includes an unpleasant day of diarrhea from unknown sources. And 128,000 people hospitalized…we could save that many people from injury or death simply by turning our attention to something with as much or more public health impact like defensive driving, combating alcoholism, or even trying to regulate safety in extreme sports.
It’s a similar question you might ask when donating to your neighbor’s school band program. Couldn’t that money have been better spent at a food bank or doctors without borders? What about a political campaign that said it would support those band programs ongoing?
People end up choosing a path for many different reasons. Before I knew I would be doing what I do now, I wanted my career to have a positive impact on the world. What compels me to focus on food safety is how cruel and unfair so many of those illnesses are. Stop foodborne illness does an excellent job illustrating this point with their honor wall.
Choosing your lunch shouldn’t be a life-altering event. But it is for those 128,000.
While I, as a food industry person, tend to be empathetic to the restaurants and companies who then have to live with the horror of having caused such an event, so many more manufacturers continue to squeak by with “no reports of illness”, even as food rots on uncleaned equipment in their facility, ready for the next day’s production.
I approach my work every day with the thought “could I be contributing to that number somehow?” and make decisions through that lens. I’m lucky to work for a company that takes that responsibility seriously, but other food safety professionals aren’t as lucky. Those people have a decision to make, stay and try to make a difference, or move on to somewhere that’s already doing the right things and wash their hands of the situation. It’s hard to say which one is the right move. As some food safety podcasters like to say, it’s complicated and it depends.
I care about food safety because when I personally buy food it comes with a promise. Not just the same promise as any other product in that it meets my expectations, but the promise that whomever sold it to me would be appropriately upset if their product somehow hurt me. Not because my injury or death threatened their livelihood, but because they care about their fellow man and that they prepared the meal for me with the best of intentions. I care about food safety because it’s a small and tangible way that I can have a positive impact on the world, even if it’s just that we can choose to eat whatever we want with the knowledge that the risk is on us rather than a lottery born of willful negligence.