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Ep. 44 – Poisons in our food supply?

Is the food we eat dangerous to our health? We know about ultra-processed foods but are there poisons in our food supply? That’s what the documentary Poisoned suggests. Dr. Chet Zelasko gives his take on the movie on this edition of Straight Talk on Health

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk on Health is recorded in conjunction with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Whether it’s research that makes the news, another miracle diet, or a new food fad, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

As a health expert, I try to stay informed. I'm always talking about research updates and the latest research on a variety of topics from dietary supplements to exercise to the health field in general. What I don't typically do is pay attention to the latest documentary on why our food is designed to kill us. It isn't that it doesn't interest me; of course it does. It's just that they all seem to be very formulaic. This is what is bad. These are the people who are in cahoots with it. And you should change your eating patterns as a result usually to a vegetarian lifestyle.

I was checking out an e-mail that I got from Netflix that talked about the most watched Netflix movies in the country. Number two on the list was a movie called Poisoned. I read about the movie. That piqued my interest so I decided to watch it because, at some point, someone will ask me about that movie.

Poisoned: The Truth About Your Food is a documentary about our food supply. The director was Stephanie Soechtig and the writer was Jeff Benedict who also wrote a book by the same title. The description of the film on IMDB says “A call to action for the officials who have the power to mitigate the danger caused by foodborne pathogens that kill thousands of people in the U.S. every year.” Now, I just had to see what that's about.

This isn't my first rodeo with a documentary about our food supply. I've seen just about everyone about meat processing, artificial sweeteners, the energy costs and water cost of growing meat, and a number of films about GMO foods, now called bioengineered foods. They mean the same thing.

There were four main stories contained within the movie. They all had to do with pathogens in the food supply. It began with a lawyer reviewing the case of a young child who had eaten a fast food burger, got very ill, and passed away within a few weeks. By coincidence, the father of the boy was a professor who taught food safety at the university level and still does. One can never remove human error from any service industry whether it is cooking, assembling an automobile, or wiring a house. But in this case, due to the speed with which food had to be delivered, the ground beef was not cooked to the right temperature which allowed the bacteria, E coli 0157, to survive. That was a corporate decision that caused a lot of people to get sick and they were held accountable.

The lesson? Cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 155 degrees. That’s the temperature which will kill the bacteria. It was a tragedy. The showed the requisite scenes of slaughterhouses and how gross they are. If you’re going to eat meat, free range or from corporate farms, there will be bacterial exposure and it will be worse if the meat is ground. Cook your hamburgers

The next segment dealt with the bacteria salmonella. In one case, a major peanut manufacturer had just about zero regard for sanitation. Salmonella and God knows what else was distributed in peanut butter in 2008-9. This was a corporate decision to distribute the product. In this case, the CEO was sentenced to prison. The only way to prevent distribution is to make sure the peanut butter is tested before shipment.

The filmmaker spent a lot of time establishing that companies that try to do the best they can still may have salmonella on their chicken. It is unavoidable because of the slaughtering and processing of chicken. We all have some bacteria like E coli in our intestines at all times. By we, I mean humans, cattle, chickens, and mice. It is always going to be in our stool. As gross as it sounds, these types of bacteria are going to be the result of feces from some animal that got into the food product. If we stopped eating meat of all types today, we could still get some exposure from our own stool. Washing your hands after using the bathroom really sounds like a good idea about now, doesn’t it?

In the case of salmonella, cooking the chicken destroys the bacteria. More than that, washing your hands after touching the raw meat may help limit spreading the bacteria all over your kitchen.

The last segment was E coli on vegetables, especially lettuces. From the way harvesting was done in the past, great care is being taken to limit exposure from human sources. That means regular cleaning of utensils in disinfectants, wearing gloves, and providing bathrooms instead of using the fields as a bathroom. Where the major issue occurs is with the location of animal farms in proximity to vegetable farms. When waste from each farm drains into a central water supply, the water is often used to irrigate crops. Vegetable crops are sprayed with water from animal waste to water the vegetables, even on organic farms. Calling into question the proximity issue is the correct one. Fix that and you may reduce exposure.

The movie closes with a congressperson, who was a survivor of E coli exposure, continuing her struggle to get her colleagues to support legislation. But the food lobby is a strong one and that’s going to make it difficult to pass safety laws.

A review or background for the film said: This film exposes how decades of apathy and malfeasance have left the American food supply and its consumers vulnerable to deadly pathogens like e. Coli and salmonella. I didn’t see it that way. As I said, the movie was formulaic. It was a touch more positive in that two of four potential exposures can be handled by cooking the meat and poultry to the correct temperature. Vegetable exposure, especially uncooked such as lettuces, can’t be eliminated. Period.

But is it that big a threat as they imply? According to people writing about the movie, the CDC reports that 1 in 6 Americans (a whopping 48 million people) develop food poisoning each year. Let's take a closer look at those numbers. This is the rest of that CDC sentence: 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. That is 1,000s as the tease for the movie suggests but let’s look at it another way.

There are roughly 330 million people in the US. Let’s deduct 10% of those for lower income and an inability to purchase enough food. That means that there are 300 million people with three meals and a snack every day. Let's be conservative and say that’s a billion meals per day. That's 365 billion potential exposures to poisoned foods in a year. If 48 million are sick enough to report it, and let's say an equal amount don’t, that works out to be 100 million per year divided by 365 billion. That works out to be .002%. In a year, the percentage of dying from a food borne illness is as close to zero as you can get based on the potential for exposure.

As documentaries go, Poisoned was okay but nothing special. It did contain less of the “let’s blame the food lobby, food producers, meat packers, and showing video of animals being slaughtered approach” of so many other similar movies. The real lesson from this movie is, if you’re going to eat meat, make sure you cook it properly. If you’re going to eat raw vegetables, there will always be a risk of eating a pathogen. The risk will never be zero no matter what you do. It’s your choice. For me, it’s worth the risk. That’s it for this show. Until next time, this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day.

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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