The Risks of Eating: Steering Clear of Foodborne Illness 100+ Years Beyond Upton Sinclair's The Jungle And Still Worried About What We Are Eating

Foodborne Illness. Credit: Tony, FlickrCCOver a hundred years have passed since Upton Sinclair’s seminal novel, The Jungle, an unsettling look into the reality of America’s meatpacking industry. His investigative work revealed violations and unsanitary business practices which the government quickly amended. But lasting change isn’t so easy to achieve.

With meat or wheat, processing has been simplified and streamlined for maximum profit. This transition toward peak efficiency has contributed to the decline in the state of public health, worsened by poor management, a lack of enforcement for lax policies and an overall disregard for federal regulations.

Foodborne pathogens and GMOs are popular subjects that attract media attention, with talking heads discussing the issues often. With this and other issues considered, Americans should educate themselves on the dangers of common consumables — a problem just as relevant today as it was in the early 1900s.

Today’s Industry

Though Sinclair’s work helped to tighten regulations in the U.S., the food industry found new ways to develop their products. With a constant push toward cheaper means of mass production, companies made sacrifices in the quality of their food to increase the quantity that factories could export.

A higher output may contribute to profit, but it’s often to the detriment of the food itself. Companies earn a large portion of their profit on commodity crops like wheat and corn which they then process into inexpensive snacks and sugary beverages with low nutritional value. Fresh produce falls by the wayside.

Why is this the case? Though produce requires less processing than unhealthy foods with a high-calorie count, it doesn’t represent a market that’s nearly as lucrative. Large manufacturers stand to gain more by offering their consumers strawberry candy instead of strawberries, and applesauce instead of apples.

This transition toward ultra-processed foods has the secondary effect of weakening the populace to illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. Beneficial phytochemicals found in plant substances, micronutrients and fiber help to combat these dangers — but are absent from most processed consumables.

The state of today’s food industry is poor, with profit-oriented companies seeking new ways to maximize their production while minimizing expenditure. As long as the American public prioritizes convenience over value, indulgence over nourishment, they will continue to find themselves subject to the same risks.

Associated Risks

Beyond the growing threat of obesity — an epidemic that most in the US are well aware of — there are additional risks associated with today’s practices that are just as pressing. In addition to ultra-processed wheat and corn, the mismanagement of livestock has an effect on the quality of the meat in your local deli aisle.

Prolonged hot spells in summer cause heat stress on cattle, which is difficult to manage for industrial-scale beef farms with an excess of animals to look after. Without sufficient water, shade and ventilation, this heat stress leads to a higher susceptibility of disease, poor health and in some cases, death.

Animals that undergo periods of heavy stress before slaughter produce a lower-quality yield than those that enjoy proper treatment. The difference is in the release of adrenaline, which alters the meat’s taste and pH levels, causing it to spoil more quickly than meat acquired through comparatively humane practices.

The food industry isn’t perfect, and its struggle to align market interests with public health goals often results in a disregard for the latter. More than lessening the quality of the product for a rise in the quantity of production, companies find other ways to slip regulations to ease their financial burdens.

Another scandal involving food safety, the latest in a series of outbreaks, came from a recall of salad and wrap products from Kroger, Trader Joe’s and Walgreens. Officials were concerned over the potential presence of the Cyclospora parasite in their inventory — another example of negligence.

Staying Safe

We trust those who produce our food to do so with a high standard of safety and respect for our health. But for many companies, their only true focus when determining output is their bottom line. Whether this comes at the cost of the consumer’s wellbeing is a secondary concern.

When shopping at your local grocery store, check the ingredients of the products you choose. Look for organic alternatives to processed foods, and always make sure to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before you prepare them in a meal. You can uphold your own regulations, even if companies don’t.

Remember that every dollar is a vote, and what you buy is what you’ll see more of in the future. So make healthy choices. After all, these choices make you.

Emily Folk is the editor of Conservation Folks. She writes on topics of sustainability, conservation and green technology.