Must ever-more-rigorous food safety regulations inevitably lead to the sterilization of our food supply? That question has tinged much of the debate on this blog, as well as in other quarters. It’s served to create extremes–if you worry about the expansion of food safety enforcement leading to sterilization, then you must be against improving the safety of our food, and in favor of more people being sickened from pathogens, goes one line of argument.

Clearly, we need to gain some sense of balance in providing appropriate safety, while not losing out on the health benefits afforded by healthy whole food. An upcoming book about food safety seeks to articulate that sense of balance. The author, Ben Hewitt, who has offered comments on this blog, and whom I have gotten to know during his book research, offers an excerpt from the book that explores the dangers of sterilization of our food supply.

On June 7, Rodale will publish my book
Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Search for the Truth About Food Safety. I’d originally thought the book would be about the pathogenic bacteria that often contaminate our food, and what needs to be done to ensure consumer safety. To a certain extent, this is still true. But as I got deeper into my reporting, I became intrigued by the interplay between human life, the bacteria that inhabit us, and the bacteria we encounter on a daily basis, both in our food and otherwise. The following excerpt, which David has kindly offered to post, is from one of the chapters that explore this issue. Thank you for reading.  – Ben Hewitt

PS: One of the great pleasures in writing this book was the opportunity to get to know a few of the characters that post here regularly. In particular, I am thankful to Bill Marler, Mark McAfee, and David Gumpert for their extreme generosity with their insight and time.

Ben HewittThere are plenty of people within the biological science community who are certain that the conventional wisdom regarding pathogenic bacteria is, to put it bluntly, killing us. One of those people is Lynn Margulis, a distinguished university professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts.

“This whole idea of good bacteria versus bad bacteria isn’t just wrong, it’s suicidal,” Margulis told me. As Margulis explains it, microbes and the communities they comprise (which is to say, us) are constantly evolving. When we meddle with that process, we run the risk of unintended consequences that might take hundreds of years to play out. “Some of the things that we now consider pathogens could be key to our survival in the future. I’m not denying there are toxic bacteria, but there are natural reasons for it. When we think of these bacteria as something to be defeated, we are not thinking ecologically at all. The war on pathogenic bacteria is built on lie upon lie upon lie.”

Essentially, Margulis is saying that our attempt to thwart pathogenic bacteria is only beneficial in the short term; over the long haul, it may actually degrade our ability to weather incoming invaders, or create even more deadly strains of the very bacteria we are trying to protect ourselves from. Antibiotics provide a convenient analogy: In the short run, they are tremendously beneficial – nothing short of lifesaving – but after only a few decades of widespread use, we are beginning to recognize significant downsides. One is the possibility of secondary infections that take root in the aftermath of antibiotic use; this is because the drugs have knocked out good bacteria along with bad, and good bacteria is, at least in part, what protects us from bad bacteria. The second, of course, is the fact that some bacteria have evolved to the point where antibiotics can no longer kill them.

Indeed, the issue of antibiotic use has a direct connection to food borne pathogens. “One of the top predictors for salmonella poisoning is antibiotic use within the past 30 days,” Justin Sonnenburg told me. Sonnenburg is an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, and author an article published in a 2010 edition of Nature called “Genetic Potluck” that considers how diet affects an individual’s microbiota, which is the term for a community of living organisms within a particular region.

According to Sonnenburg, the very real possibility is that sterilized food acts in much the same way as antibiotics. No, it probably doesn’t actively kill beneficial bacteria in our guts, but it does subtly, over time, shift the balance of microbes in our system. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that fewer and fewer of us live in close contact with the natural world, where these bacteria proliferate. Numerous studies have shown that children raised on farms have significantly lower incidence of asthma and other chronic conditions associated with immune response. And when I say “significant,” I mean significant: One Austrian study found that the prevalence of asthma was almost 75% lower in farm kids. Simply put, humans are no longer exposed to as much or as varied bacteria as they once were, and the net effect may well be a society that is more vulnerable than ever to the sort of disease can insert itself into a bad batch of hamburger and then quietly but quickly spread across the country.

“One of the things we tend to forget,” said Sonnenburg, “is that we co-evolved with all these microbes, good and bad. Our ancestors almost certainly ate a far greater diversity of microbes than we do today. For instance, they used fermentation as a preservation method, and fermented foods are extremely microbially diverse. How many people ferment foods anymore?” It was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t say anything, but I knew the right answer: Not very many at all. Sonnenburg continued. “Sterilization and pasteurization of our food have undoubtedly been beneficial to humans over the short term, but there has been a long term cost, and that cost is exposure to microbes.”

Ben Hewitt and his family live on a diversified 40-acre farm in Vermont, where they produce dairy, beef, pork, lamb, vegetables, berries, maple syrup, and firewood. He is the author of The Town That Food Saved, which chronicles a rural Vermont town’s attempts to revitalized its economy through local food.