Is Your Supper Safe?

With recent outbreaks of E. coli in beef and salmonella in peanuts, sitting down to dinner may seem hazardous to your health. Can it really be so bad? EatingWell investigates.

September/October 2009

By Ben Hewitt

Is Your Supper Safe?

First, he goes onto the roof. It will be industrial: flat and expansive, likely covered in crushed gravel or a thin veneer of asphalt. The roofs he walks cap long, low, stolid buildings, often situated in the midst of vast expanses of near-nothingness. But that’s OK. He’s not here for the view. Indeed, he is looking toward the center of the roof, where a pair of huge, spiraling cones push into the sky. They are venting the air—and anything that rides in it—from the building’s interior. Sometimes, around bases of the vents, he’ll find detritus from the industry below. At one facility where cheese was produced, it was powdered milk. Pigeons were gathered about, feeding on the bounty. Peck. Peck. Peckpeckpeckpeck. He knows birds carry salmonella and he is pretty certain he’s found the source of the bacteria he’s been called in to investigate. Once the contaminated milk powder gets kicked up by the wind, it will drift back down through the vents or, in a rainstorm, liquefy and drip through a leak in the roof. “In every factory, there’s a Bermuda Triangle, where everything comes together to create a source of contamination,” he tells me. “A lot of times, the Bermuda Triangle involves the roof.”

Scott Donnelly is one of our country’s top experts in microbiological food operations. He is an independent contractor, hired by a privately owned company (which preferred not to be identified) that helps food manufacturers identify sources of contamination. From his home in Burlington, Vermont, Donnelly flies to Georgia, California, Texas, Louisiana. He inspects facilities that process peanuts, cereal, frozen pizza, cheese, ground beef and energy drinks. It is a job that, of late, has been particularly busy for him, as the industry grapples with the recent spotlight on food-related illnesses.

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