Swine Flu: Time to calm the hysteria

Articles
May 12, 2009

Swine Flu: Time to calm the hysteria

The latest flu threat to humankind dubbed “swine flu” most likely signaled a subconscious red flag regarding all pork products, regardless if you are an “other white meat” eater or not. Even though we know, and the National Pork Board has confirmed, that pork and pork products are completely safe to eat, we still might hesitate when grabbing that tasty ham sandwich for lunch. Does this seem to be a running trend, every few weeks a new problem arises in our food supply; are we, as consumers conditioned to expect these sometimes fatal events? This may very well be true, as Americans have recently been warned about consuming spinach, pistachios, peanuts and other products otherwise thought to be safe to eat. So if the truth is, that we expect these agents to occasionally surface in our food supply, why do we become so hysterical? The hysteria surrounding contaminated foods, food borne illnesses and highly contagious viruses can partially be pinned to the eagerness of those responsible for disseminating the information to alert the public. The web connecting governing public health authorities to media outlets such as radio and TV broadcasted news programs, is vast and convoluted. The World Health Organization’s alert system, in theory, is not designed for “consumer use” but instead, to alert or initiate the health response system. Take note, the pandemic alert is designed to describe the geographic spread, not the (physical) severity or lethality of a virus. Due to the inherent nature and intended audience, alert messages, cause mass confusion when translated through media outlets “for consumer use.” Perfectly put, Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the preventive medicine department at Vanderbilt University, stated that “The WHO needs a mechanism to dial down the anxiety levels while educating us about the extent of the transmission,” ¹ We should hope redefining or having an additional clause in the pandemic alert system is on the agenda during the WHO’s H1N1 response review. This would certainly pacify a lot of the confusion and hysteria (and may I add hypochondria) that leads to unnecessary overcrowding in hospitals and clinics, as well as economic losses due to sick days. Because this event also reignited our interest in the safety procedures of ingredient suppliers for our nation’s food supply, and the shortfalls of government oversight- the FDA specifically- let’s discuss a few quick food safety tips to keep in mind for you and your family...

The latest flu threat to humankind dubbed “swine flu” most likely signaled a subconscious red flag regarding all pork products, regardless if you are an “other white meat” eater or not. Even though we know, and the National Pork Board has confirmed, that pork and pork products are completely safe to eat, we still might hesitate when grabbing that tasty ham sandwich for lunch.

Does this seem to be a running trend, every few weeks a new problem arises in our food supply; are we, as consumers conditioned to expect these sometimes fatal events? This may very well be true, as Americans have recently been warned about consuming spinach, pistachios, peanuts and other products otherwise thought to be safe to eat. So if the truth is, that we expect these agents to occasionally surface in our food supply, why do we become so hysterical?

The hysteria surrounding contaminated foods, food borne illnesses and highly contagious viruses can partially be pinned to the eagerness of those responsible for disseminating the information to alert the public. The web connecting governing public health authorities to media outlets such as radio and TV broadcasted news programs, is vast and convoluted. The World Health Organization’s alert system, in theory, is not designed for “consumer use” but instead, to alert or initiate the health response system. Take note, the pandemic alert is designed to describe the geographic spread, not the (physical) severity or lethality of a virus. Due to the inherent nature and intended audience, alert messages, cause mass confusion when translated through media outlets “for consumer use.”

Perfectly put, Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the preventive medicine department at Vanderbilt University, stated that “The WHO needs a mechanism to dial down the anxiety levels while educating us about the extent of the transmission,” ¹ We should hope redefining or having an additional clause in the pandemic alert system is on the agenda during the WHO’s H1N1 response review. This would certainly pacify a lot of the confusion and hysteria (and may I add hypochondria) that leads to unnecessary overcrowding in hospitals and clinics, as well as economic losses due to sick days.

Because this event also reignited our interest in the safety procedures of ingredient suppliers for our nation’s food supply, and the shortfalls of government oversight - the FDA specifically - let’s discuss a few quick food safety tips to keep in mind for you and your family.

• Clean- wash hands and surfaces often- especially after handling raw meats and poultry
• Separate- don’t cross contaminate- for example use separate knives and cutting boards for your raw chicken and salad veggies
• Cook- make sure you check labels and always cook to recommended cooking temperatures
• Chill- refrigerate promptly²
• Always be alert to product recalls. The FDA has a constantly updated site: www.fda.gov
• While grocery shopping avoid cans or jars that are cracking or bulging, and packaged meats that are leaking
• If possible, buy local produce or grow your own - this way you can monitor pesticide use and other problematic chemicals

It is also important to remember to remain calm when news programs report situations like the H1N1 virus or when foods are found to be contaminated. Make sure you understand the actual threat and how it may affect your life - this will help you to make educated decisions regarding you and your family’s health.

We should expect change in both government (new glasses for the FDA), and food corporations. One of the priorities of the Obama administration is to review food safety and this topic is certainly of great interest to the food giants, as food recalls have proven costly.

 

Despite the above critique, overall the WHO should be commended for their remarkable H1N1 response effort.

References:
1 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/health/10chan.html?em
2 http://www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets/Basics_for_Handling_Food_Safely/index.asp