In his second contribution to PRK, Chapter President Alex Loud of Slow Food Boston wants to take the heat off the common kitchen sponge as a spreader of E. coli bacteria. Why not take aim at, and take steps to improve, the safety of our food system?
Slow Food Boston
I was recently sent an article from the WebMD website entitled “6 Daily Habits That May Make You Sick.” Although the whole article seems a bit on the alarmist side (to wit, the number five worst thing you can do is open your windows), WebMD’s concerns about your humble sponge seemed notable. From the article:
Most people clean their countertops and table after a meal with the one tool found in almost all kitchens: the sponge. In addition to sopping up liquids and other messes, the kitchen sponge commonly carries E. coli and fecal bacteria, as well as many other microbes. “It’s the single dirtiest thing in your kitchen, along with a dishrag,” says […].
While no one would argue that sponges don’t become seriously nasty—and indeed even hazardous—this struck me as a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. I mean, if you are cleaning E. coli off your cutting board, is it really the sponge that is the problem? E. coli and other such pathogens come from food. They come from the food we buy in the grocery store. They come from the products that our government tacitly tolerated in the food supply until last year. But the sponge is the problem? Really?
Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation famously and unsubtly noted that the presence of E. coli means only one thing: “There is shit in the meat.” And this is true. As noted in the WebMD article, E. coli is a fecal bacteria. If it is present in your hamburger or on your spinach, it is because somehow a certain quantity of [ahem] has come into contact with your food. Sorry if that’s nauseating, but it’s the truth. And it strikes me as perhaps too accepting of things being “just the way they are” to say that we all must microwave our sponges for two minutes to be safe when there is [ahem] in the food.
Really, if someone came into your house and told you there was cyanide on your cutting board, how would you react? Chances are you would recoil in horror and call the police. But here we’re being told, in essence, that a similarly lethal pathogen is on the counter, the spatula or the sink, and the recommendation is that we blithely wash up and hope for the best.
Of course, this is the reality of our food system today. To their credit, the Obama administration, through the Food Safety Modernization Act, has been working to institute some important changes. But the wheels of government, as they say, turn slowly. The past several months have already seen a six-state E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts, and a listeria event traced to cantaloupes that has killed more people than any food-borne illness in the U.S. in the past 100 years.
Still, this doesn’t mean we have to accept things the way they are. And it doesn’t mean we have to blame the sponge. There are a couple easy things you can do, including the following:
Eat local. Yes, I know Slow Food is always preaching ‘eat local,’ but food from small New England farms carries a very real benefit in terms of food safety. The spinach that triggered the nationwide E. coli outbreak in 2006 actually came from only one farm in California. Because, however, that farm sold its spinach to a larger distributor who co-mingled it with product from many other farms, the pathogens spread chaotically through the whole system.
When you go to the farmers market and buy a bunch of spinach (or lettuce or sprouts) from your favorite farmer, on the other hand, you’re getting product from one place and likely even one plant. As such, the odds of actually ending up with [ahem] on your cutting board are greatly reduced.
Talk to your supermarket. The major food companies have generally resisted making safety improvements that hurt their bottom lines. The American Meat Institute (an industry trade group) last year even opposed the USDA’s September decision to outlaw six strains of E. coli in ground beef.
Supermarkets, however, are in a different position. Their brands are wholly reliant on consumer trust. It’s simply too easy to drive the extra mile to the next supermarket. Not surprisingly then, a number of chains are pushing their way to the forefront of food safety issues. Last year, for example, Costco began testing all the ground meat and pre-packaged vegetables sold in their stores for pathogens. This deserves loud applause. Whole Foods has for years undertaken audits and surprise inspections of their suppliers, albeit through a third party.
So, if you shop elsewhere, why not stop by the management desk next time you’re in the store and ask what they’re doing to protect their customers? And if you don’t like the answer, maybe even call their headquarters and ask the same question.
Then maybe we can all learn to love our sponges again.
Read Alex’s previous post: Slow Food USA Comes of Age.