Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Health diary

The late Irving Kenneth Zola was going to chair my dissertation committee, but he died the day I learned I had received funding for the study. Irv, among other physical problems, was diabetic, and as can happen with diabetes he had a heart attack and was not aware of it due to neuropathy.

Anyway, in his seminar Problems and Issues in the Sociology of Health and Illness, he asked us to keep personal health diaries -- write down every day whatever we could about our state of health and experience of health and illness, however defined. I certainly don't want to inflict such a narcissistic project on the world, but I think my recent - nay, still current - bout with a food-borne illness is mildly instructive. I was out in the country finishing up work on my rustic cabin and as I often do I bought lunch at the local general store. They offer an unappealing assortment of bland deli salads but they are also the only place in town, and I mean that: there is exactly one store of any description.

Well, it hit me at about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday. I got no sleep that night. I was in and out of the bathroom every 10 minutes, and it lasted all the next day. Since it was a Sunday I wasn't missing out on a whole lot of productivity by lying on the sofa between excursions to the water closet and watching steroid abusers in plastic armor beating the shit out of each other. However, I'm still pretty groggy today and I have continuing abdominal pain. If the timing had been different I would have missed a day or two of work -- not a huge deal maybe but the economic costs add up, or at least they would if I did anything of economic value.

CDC estimates that 76 million Americans get sick from food-borne illnesses every year, that's about one quarter of us all, so we've all been there. It's mostly just an extremely unpleasant experience and a sick day, but there are 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, so on the whole it's well worth making a significant investment to avoid it.

And here, once again, is a compelling example of why "free markets" are a hallucination. As a consumer, you have absolutely no way of knowing whether the food you buy is going to make you sick. The contamination is invisible and you can't observe how it is handled at any stage from farm to factory to grocery or restaurant. In some cases you might be able to make a pretty good guess about what meal it was that made you sick, but that doesn't empower you as a consumer either. I don't know whether the problem was with the way the salad was handled at the General Store, or their immediate supplier, or someplace way up the manufacturing chain, e.g. the mayonnaise factory. So boycotting the store isn't going to do me any good.

The only entity that can protect us is Big Government -- the nanny state. I suspect that there is no Board of Health of any kind to inspect the General Store, but we generally depend on local governments to inspect grocery stores and restaurants. Good luck with that. The Dept. of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for producers of meat, poultry and eggs, and the FDA is basically responsible for everything else. However, the FDA contracts half of the work out to the states, and it doesn't do nearly enough to assure that the states are doing the job -- which to a substantial extent they are not. As for imported food, fuggedaboudit. "Just 1.3% of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are inspected — yet those government inspections regularly reveal food unfit for human consumption."

As I sit here with my abdomen cramping, I am displeased. Of course, it's not influenza so it doesn't matter.


robin andrea said...

Your food-borne illness experience is precisely why we always pack our own food whenever we travel. It's part of our routine, preparing the day's meals and making sure everything gets into the cooler. I tend to regard most prepared foods as poison. I know that's absurd, but it keeps me pretty healthy.

I am so sorry you had such a terrible experience. I hope you are well on the mend.

kathy a. said...

hope you are feeling better.

Wellescent Health Blog said...

Unfortunately, the costs of inspecting our food are part of the cost we pay for it and we have become accustomed to inexpensive food. As a result of cost cutting, we rely on a patchwork of inspectors and semiregular inspections to provide some level of food safety. Whether it be salmonella tainted lettuce from California or listeria in cold cuts in Canada, our food systems will continue to have this problem until either technology solves the problem or people decide that safe food is worth more.

Bix said...

That's terrible. I hope your recovery is swift and complete. If you were 5 or 80 yrs old you may have landed in the hospital. Here's to your healthy immune system.

I agree with Wellescent. Coincidentally, Larry King devoted a show to food safety last Monday. The CEO and President of the American Meat Institute (AMI), Pat Boyle, was one guest (out of 10). He claimed, with some sort of pride, that...

"The Department of Agriculture conducts 15,000 tests for E. coli each year."

His own group, the AMI, said, "In 2007, the US produced 48.8 billion pounds of red meat."

Is that one E. coli test for every 3.3 million pounds of red meat processed?

When one guest urged passage of the food safety legislation in Congress right now, legislation that would increase inspections, Mr. Boyle said "The legislation actually applies to companies that produce food under FDA's jurisdiction, not meat or poultry companies."

The meat industry is one of several groups whose lobbying efforts succeed to preventing increased inspections. It's also in their favor to keep food safety responsibilities decentralized.

There has been a push to consolidate food safety activities as far back as 1999 (that I know of). Rosa De Lauro (D-CT) has been, and continues to be, a strong advocate. Hillary Clinton championed consolidation while a Senator and during her presidential run. But, as with health care, big business seems to like the status quo.

I didn't mean to run on... Hope you're feeling better!