The public health goal of maintaining food safety and minimizing harm poses an interesting dilemma: when does the end justify the means? More specifically, is it justifiable to promote unscientific food safety standards in the name of public safety? Regulators seem to act as if it is.
During a recent outbreak of Escherichia coli linked to contaminated fresh spinach in the United States, public health authorities initially told consumers, retailers, and restaurants to throw out all spinach, often directly stating in public announcements that it could not be made safe by cooking it. This assertion is scientifically incorrect: E. coli is very easy to kill with heat.
Evidently the officials decided that oversimplifying the public message was better than telling the truth. They may have feared that if people cooked contaminated spinach to make it safe to eat, but either didn’t cook it sufficiently or cross-contaminated other food or kitchen surfaces in the process, more fatalities would result. The authorities must have decided that the benefits of avoiding multiple accidental deaths far outweighed the costs of simply tossing out all spinach. In this case they probably were right to make that decision. The cost of some spinach is small compared to the misery and expense of hospitalization.
Oversimplifying for the sake of public safety is a very reasonable thing to do in the midst of an outbreak or other health crisis. It may well have saved lives to lie to the public and announce things that, strictly speaking, are false (for example, that you can’t kill E. coli with heat).
However, outside of a crisis situation, there is a pervasive danger that this philosophy leads to “dumbing down,” oversimplifying, or fabricating food safety information. It is very easy for public health officials to adopt the paternalistic attitude that they can make scientifically incorrect statements with impunity, even in situations in which the balance of risks is nothing like that which occurs during a crisis. Who pushes back against nonsensical rules? The reality is that the only groups that push back are those that have political clout.
Because of this approach, culinary professionals and casual cooks alike have been grossly misled about a wide range of food safety issues and are often subjected to distorted, incomplete, or contradictory rules. When a political interest group exists, it is that group’s opinion, rather than science, that shapes the rules. But when there is no political force to push back, the rules can be overstated and excessive.
Consider the overstated risk of exposure to Trichinella , which has led to ridiculously excessive recommendations for cooking pork. This overkill is just one of many such examples. Cooking standards for chicken, fish, and eggs, as well as rules about raw milk cheeses, all provide examples of inconsistent, excessive, or illogical standards. To a public health official, mandating that pork chops or chicken breasts be dry and overcooked makes sense if it keeps even one person from getting sick. In this calculus, one less case of foodborne illness is worth millions of ruined chops or breasts.
That attitude becomes harder to defend, however, if you accept that overcooking food comes at a cost. A chef’s livelihood may depend on producing the best taste and texture for customers. Home cooks who love food want it to taste the very best that it can. To a person who cares about the quality of food—or who makes a living based on it—excessive food safety standards don’t come cheap.
A balance must be struck between the risk of foodborne illness and the desire for palatable food. In cases such as those of pork and chicken, misleading the public about a rarely occurring scenario (while ignoring other, larger risks) arguably offers little protection and comes at the cost of millions of unnecessarily awful meals.