Science Talk

Is Your Food Contaminated; New Orleans Now; And the Science of Dogs

In this episode Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti talks about the challenges of keeping the food supply safe and about the state of New Orleans hurricane preparedness. And journalist Jackie Mow discusses her new TV show about the science of dogs. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include:;

Science Talk August 15, 2007 -- Is Your Food Contaminated? New Orleans Now; The Science of Dogs

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting August 15th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast:

Fischetti: There is so much that comes over the border. There is no way you can inspect it all. Actually, the FDA and USDA inspect only about 1 percent of all incoming food shipments.

Steve: That's Scientific American editor, Mark Fischetti, and we'll hear from him this week about food safety and also about the state of the City of New Orleans. We'll also talk with TV producer, Jackie Mow, about a big dog show premiering this week. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Mark Fischetti—he's one of the editors at Scientific American and the author of the article, "Is Your Food Contaminated?" that appears in the September special issue of Scientific American, all about food, eating, obesity and nutrition. He also wrote an article about what could happen to New Orleans in a powerful enough hurricane years before, Katrina hit, and we'll talk a bit about that, too. We spoke in the library at Scientific American.

Steve: Hi Mark. How are you?

Fischetti: Hi Steve. Good.

Steve: So, the article is called, "Is Your Food Contaminated?". Is my food contaminated?

Fischetti: Well, I hope not personally. However, there seems to be a greater chance that it could be or at least a greater awareness these days that it might be.

Steve: Why have we waited until now for that awareness to become as great as it is?

Fischetti: Well, I think there is probably two factors: There is a much greater focus on terrorism these days, so people are thinking more widely about how we could be affected, so tampering [with] the food supplies is a scenario that's being looked at more; and also because of [a] lot of recent events involving imported food and a lot of cases of recalls and of poisonings that has just raised everybody's awareness.

Steve: I am personally more concerned about mayonnaise left out in the sun than about terrorism when it comes to my food. Is that a rational attitude?

Fischetti: I think it's rational. Yeah! There is, statistically, your chances of eating something bad are definitely higher—[a] greater chance that it's a natural pathogen, due either to bad handling practices amongst preparers or even home owners and also because more and more food is being processed centrally. So if a problem occurs at some step along the process, it's more and more readily spread to [a] wide variety of end-sellers and users.

Steve: When you say more food is being processed centrally, does that mean, you know, if I a buy chicken wings in New York or chicken wings in San Antonio or chicken wings in San Francisco, they might have all come through the same giant chicken wing factory?

Fischetti: Very, very likely. Yeah! More and more likely in fact—and it applies to eggs, milk, meat and all sorts of different kinds of food.

Steve: To what extent is that the case? I mean, how most people probably think that they are still buying food that's fairly locally produced, but is pretty much everything or the majority of things that we buy in our local supermarket going through some series of vast clearinghouses somewhere?

Fischetti: Most likely, yes. It has really gotten to the point where even grocery store chains if they do have local prodders or even regional prodders, they promote it as some desired quality. Also, imports are increasing vastly. I believe the U.S. imports five times as much food as it has only 10 years ago.

Steve: Five times as much as 10 years ago. What has been responsible for that explosion in imported food?

Fischetti: I think it's basic economics—costs less, that's where the large manufacturers or producers going to get [it].

Steve: What do we do to ensure at the, I guess, at the corporate level really, that food that we are bringing in is safe before it's distributed for retail sale.

Fischetti: Yeah! It's a big issue. There is so much that comes over the border. There is no way you can inspect it all. Actually, the FDA and USDA inspect only about 1 percent of all incoming food shipments.

Steve: And that's what makes it a corporate issue.

Fischetti: Sure. Right! So who is going to be responsible? Certainly it's not going to be the government inspectors, which is not nearly enough for them. So it sort of falls on the importers, or really most of the people whose brand names are on their products to go to their suppliers in the other countries and say, "We are the ones who stand to lose the most." If it's Dole pineapple, that tainted Dole is going to take the rap. So it's really incumbent upon them to go to their suppliers and say, "We are going to demand these certain levels of safety and procedures and even testing, otherwise we are not going buy from you."

Steve: Talk about, there is a specific mention in your article that gets into a little bit about the bureaucratic problems with food inspection—the pizza scenarios.

Fischetti: Yeah! Right. There are, some say 12, some say 13, I guess nobody really knows how many government agencies have some hand in regulating food, food safety. The regulations fall such that the FDA regulates pizza with cheese on it, but the USDA regulates pizza if it has meat on it—that's just one example of that shows it is sort of their byzantine government structure that's involved and yet there are still inspecting certain small quantities of food.

Steve: So, obviously what we need is a pizza-inspection unit of the government.

Fischetti: Right! You are right. (laughs)

Steve: So it inspects all pizza regardless. So let's talk a little bit about some of the technology that is being developed to protect food. You've got for example everybody is probably seeing those tags that are on clothing, so that you don't shoplift clothing.

Fischetti: Right, right.

Steve: But you got edible tags.

Fischetti: Yeah! There is actually quite a lot of research going on. The point is that if you can't stop some food from being tainted, whether it's natural or deliberate, the second best thing you could do is at least find it early and track it quickly back to where it came from, so that you can stop it [from] spread[ing] to millions and millions of consumers. So there are a number of levels of technology that are being experimented with. The big one is RFID tags, those little sort of bar code–looking tags that are in fact attached to clothing and other items that would be read during each step along the process—so that if there is a recall or if there is a finding of some sort of contamination, then you could read the tags on all the boxes of whatever that food happened to be quickly, to know where it came from, and know if you've got a bad batch.

Steve: Then, you also talk about active packaging, that's really interesting.

Fischetti: Right. So, think about a package of ground beef. The big worry is always E. coli and if you've got, you know, the cellophane that's wrapped around the beef, if it has a layer or a window in the cellophane that's sensitive to E. coli, if it comes in contact with E. coli or just say turn from clear to red, so that everybody would know right away, "Hey this package is contaminated."

Steve: How soon would we be able to see something like that in local grocery stores?

Fischetti: Well, RFID tags are actually being used now in pilot programs. Cellophane, that active packaging, it's still in the research stage. You mentioned earlier edible tags. There are systems now that you can print really, really tiny brands or codes or letters on edible items. So on fruits, the letters, the tags are made out of cellulose, you know, [the] sort of materials that you can eat and digest with no problem. So that would, that's sort of another level, that's actually been done experimentally, but commercially it's not being used yet.

Steve: You also talk in the article a little bit about smart kitchen technology: "Refrigerators that will warn you." I mean, right now you know, your nose is your warning system. You open up the milk and you say, "Oh, this milk is bad" or your refrigerator might be able to tell you that certain things have gone bad?

Fischetti: Yeah! It's not something I thought of initially, but as I was talking to more people, there's one big program at Ohio University is to design smart appliances, as kind of the last line of defense. Let's say you do have a package in your possession that's been contaminated or [a] recall goes out. You could have a refrigerator that's got a scanner built into it, so you pass the food under the scanner, it reads the label and tells you, "Hey, recall is just issued for this package of beef." Other sensors could be in microwave ovens or regular conventional ovens—an infrared sensor that can tell you temperature of the inside of the meat you are cooking. You know, you are supposed to cook meat to 170 degrees or whatever the recommendation is—well. But how do you know that? An infrared sensor could tell you automatically.

Steve: Of course, you could also grow your own vegetables in your backyard, if you have a backyard.

Fischetti: Yes, you could.

Steve: And, those would probably be safe. So, you are also our New Orleans expert. You wrote the article, well before Hurricane Katrina came in and smacked New Orleans around you had an article in our magazine—three years before?

Fischetti: Four years, actually. Yeah!

Steve: Four years before, that when you read that article, after Katrina, it sounds like you are reporting on what Katrina actually did, this article warning what the possibilities were with the right scenario. So, we are now two years after Katrina pretty much. What is going on there?

Fischetti: Well, the levies in and around New Orleans as of, lets say the spring, were all repaired by the U.S. Army Corps Engineers back to their original design spec, as they like to say, so that's good. The bad news is that the original design spec was to prevent against a category 3 hurricane. Katrina was 4, kind of fading to a 3, when it hit New Orleans and you see how well it held up to that. But more problematically is—like the city and like the surrounding areas—the levies are slowly subsiding. So even though they've been built back up to what they were before, the whole system is slowly subsiding. So the whole system actually doesn't really give you a hurricane level 3 protection anymore.

Steve: So it did, the minute that they finished the reconstruction, but it started to decay immediately.

Fischetti: Well, I mean, the system has been sinking all along. You know, some of those levies are decades and decades old. So just repairing them to their old height, the whole system is sunk, and so you don’t really have any category 3 protection there.

Steve: So the article that you wrote four years between, before Katrina, is now just a (unclear 11:43) as it ever was.

Fischetti: Yes, sorry to say. And there are, sort of, two bottom lines to that. One is the natural wetland system in the delta, which is vast, has just been really torn apart by human development and to some degree natural forces, so that has really eliminated the natural buffer—and short of rebuilding that, which would be decades-long process—we've got to do some, you've got to raise some sort of structure, whether it's a wall, halfway between the city and the sea or a wall at the edge of the sea, to hold back storm surges and just general wave action, because that's going to continue to make the natural barriers worse.

Steve: And what's the progress, if any, on that?

Fischetti: Really none. The Army Corps of Engineers is doing its own study. There have been various groups of scientific societies and engineering groups have gotten together to propose plans. Those two sets of plans that I mentioned, that's sort of the wall halfway of the sea and the wall at the sea, are sort of generally agreed upon by allthese groups as the likely options, but it's only gotten to that stage there. They haven’t done any sort of engineering studies certainly, and there is certainly no funding or commercial impetus (unclear 13:04) [to] build these things.

Steve: So the plan right now is let's hope it doesn’t happen again.

Fischetti: Yep, definitely! I mean the Army Corps has presented plans to Congress, you know, they have to actually make a pitch to Congress to get money to get funding each year, to start to raise some of the local levees, but you know, all of that is just around the city proper; does nothing to protect the whole outline structure, and the Army Corps's fundamental plan is in addition to raising levees, they need to build physical structured gates across inlets to the big lake north of city, across all these navigation channels through the city. These are tremendous structures that actually have been built in places like The Netherlands, but their earliest estimate for being able to build those structures in the key places where the flooding occurred in Katrina would be 2011 to 2012, so it's a long time still.

Steve: Mark's article again is called "Is Your Food Contaminated?" It's in the September single topic issue of Scientific American—all about food, obesity and nutrition. It's available at newsstands and in digital form on our Web site, We'll be right back.

Male voice: Science Video News, now at Easy to view and updated three times a day. Video news just a click away at

Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Squirrels can heat up their tails, which warns heat-sensitive rattlesnakes to keep away.

Story number 2: Speaking of rattlesnakes, a farmer in central Washington State suffered a bad bite by a rattlesnake that the farmer had already killed and decapitated.

Story number 3: A couple in New Zealand are threatening to name their baby, para amino dimethylbenzaldehyde because their original name choice was rejected by the government.

And Story number 4: A new GPS device is built into a dog collar, so you can track your dog.

We'll be back with the answer. But first, speaking of dogs, there is a new TV show about dog science. Jackie Mow is a science journalist who produced, directed and co-wrote the program which debuts on August 15th on the National Geographic Channel show, Explorer. For a sneak preview, I called Jackie at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Steve: Hi Jackie. How are you?

Mow: Hey Steve. How are you doing?

Steve: I'm doing okay. So tell us about the show that you've been so intimately involved with.

Mow: Well, I just came off this show called The Science of Dogs and it's all about dogs and what makes them so amazing.

Steve: And what makes dogs so amazing?

Mow: Well, dogs unlike other domesticated animals have this huge variety. They are less than two pounds smaller to the 240 pounds massive in the seven-foot great Danes. [A] domesticated pig looks like a pig and a domesticated cat looks like [a] cat, so but the dog has this enormous variety and everything in between.

Steve: What are the most interesting scientific aspects of the domestic dog that you learned about while you were working on this program?

Mow: Well, we found out they were looking at the dog genome and they sequenced the dog genome about five years ago, and there is one scientist in particular who is looking at the tandem repeats—which is repeated letters in the dog genome—but they also exist in the human genomes and in other animals. But the dogs in particular is [are] able to copy these tandem repeats fairly easily in their genomes and so what happens is they can mutate really quickly. So those dogs were created only 100 years ago, a little over 100 years ago in the Victorian era in England. And what happened was all these middle class people—they often had a lot of money and they wanted a hobby—so they decided they would start bringing dogs and, for example, this happened also in Germany and France and later in the U.S., you know, the Doberman pinscher for example was a dog that was created during that era and it happened over a very, very short amount of time.

Steve: So there is something unusual about the dog genome that lends itself to a lot of plasticity in how many breeds you can get in a short amount of time compared to other animals.

Mow: Yeah, absolutely! And this happens also in other canids: In wolves, jackals, coyotes they found also this slip which they call a slippery genome, (unclear 17:55) tandem repeat these variants and so that's why unlike cats, the cats don't have it. So once, you know, once removed from the canid species, you don't see that kind of slippery genome.

Steve: The canid species—c-a-n-i-d—and that's a taxonomic classification for all these kinds of dog and dog-related animals.

Mow: Yeah! Exactly!

Steve: So, the program debuts on the 15th.

Mow: It debuts on the 15th, it premiers on August 15th at 8 o'clock P.M. on the National Geographic Channel.

Steve: 8 P.M. Eastern.

Mow: 8 P.M. eastern standard time and then a repeat on August 18th, that's Saturday at 7 o'clock P.M. and then they will repeat again the following week.

Steve: Terrific, thanks Jackie. I appreciate it.

Mow: Thank you so much.

Steve: The Science of Dogs premiers August 15th. To see a preview, go to

Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story #1: Hot tails in squirrel[s] "keep away" signal to rattlesnakes.

Story #2: Dead rattlesnake bites man.

Story #3: Chemical compound baby name.

And Story #4: Dog GPS device.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. Squirrels warn off heat-sensitive rattlers by waving their heated tails at them, especially at night. For more, check out the August 14th episode of the daily Scientific American podcast, 60-Second Science.

Story number 2 is true. The farmer was bitten by the dead snake and had to get emergency treatment; rattlesnakes dead for an hour can still bite and do a lot of damage. For more, check out J. R. Minkel's August 10th edition of "News Bytes of the Week"—B-y-t-e-s—at the Scientific American Web site,

And story number 4 is true. The new Garmin Astro is a GPS unit that lets you keep track of your dog. According to U.S. News and World Report, the $600 unit has a range of five miles, so it's really designed for hunters who want to track their dog while the dog tracks whatever the dog is tracking. For broader ID purposes, you can have a tiny bar code ID placed under your dog's skin. They also sell an inexpensive unit that goes around the dog's neck on one end and you hold the other end. I understand that works really well.

All of which means that story number 3 about a New Zealand couple threatening to name their name baby para amino dimethylbenzaldehyde is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. What is true though is that the couple wants to name their baby Superman as a fallback, because their first choice "4real"—the numeral 4 followed by the word real—was rejected by the government as an unsuitable baby name. That's according to the New Zealand Herald. The still unnamed baby is now two months old. You know, "Callow" is a nice name, and if you are going to use a number for your baby's name, you got to stick with George Costanza's choice 7.

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at, check out news articles at our Web site, The daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. And by the way, I am a guest on another popular podcast that debuts Saturday, August 18th, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. We recorded that show last week. It was a lot of fun. And you can check it out at iTunes and And check out their archives for the recent episode with former president, Jimmy Carter, about his alleged UFO-sighting incident. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription
as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now! >


Email this Article