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Tucson Weekly Tainted Pleasures

What we don't know about our food supply could kill us.

By Gregory McNamee

Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth about A Food Chain Gone Haywire, By Nicols Fox (Basic Books). Cloth, $25.

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  THE FATES SOMETIMES have a way of adding urgency to projects long in the works. In the case of Nicols Fox's Spoiled, a disquieting and utterly convincing exposé of the American way of producing and eating food, those fates lent a hand in recent months by inserting a couple of million pounds of tainted hamburger meat into the country's mass-market, fast-food system. Thankfully, the meat was recalled and destroyed before it could work its way into the gullets of citizens everywhere--just in time, and perhaps just this time.

That was big news, at least for a day or two. And the daily news is already full of stories about mad cow disease, outbreaks of fast-food poisonings, and biogenetic food experimentation gone wrong--but, in Fox's view, not full enough. Even with the horror stories, she contends, the mass media seriously under report the threat that current methods of food manufacture and distribution pose to the public health.

According to recent Centers for Disease Control figures, more than 81 million cases of food poisoning occur in this country each year. E. coli 0157:H7, a particularly nasty bacterium, alone causes as many as 20,000 illnesses each year, killing between 250 and 500 Americans. Because of E. coli and other bacteria, it's no longer safe to eat the skins of uncooked vegetables, no longer safe to eat eggs, no longer safe to eat hamburger--a supermarket package of which can contain meat from many animals, killed at different times and in different places.

It's something of an irony, Fox slyly remarks, that with our abundance of food choices--the average supermarket today stocks 25,000-odd items, against the 300 a store held in 1950--we should have to worry so much about what we eat. But we do, and the causes are many. With advances in transportation, refrigeration, chemical engineering, and industrial agriculture, our foods come farther and farther from their sources, and at all seasons, an unnatural state of affairs never before seen in human history. In the meanwhile, bacteria are getting smarter, evolving to survive our efforts to contain them. Salmonella, Fox writes, now can survive in eggs boiled for as long as eight minutes, "bad news indeed for egg lovers, for home cooks everywhere, and certainly for chefs."

But only, she adds, if they "read obscure medical journals," the chief source of information about such unpleasant truths. Certainly, she reiterates, you won't find the news in most newspapers.

Fox's book will make you think twice about the foods you buy and consume, and it adds up to a fine work of public-interest journalism that could not be more timely.

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