Eat at Your Own Risk

The Wagner Food Policy Alliance Brown Bag was the kind of event that can make you re-examine your daily habits. Lauren Bush, a student at Wagner, eloquently discussed her harrowing personal experience with foodborne illness and the local and national advocacy efforts she has since joined to highlight and address this public issue.

When she was 20, Lauren said, she ate a bowl of contaminated spinach. It was triple-washed and organic — and grown in E.coli. After a pair of week-long hospital stays, $50,000 in medical bills (which her insurance fortunately covered, but of course not everyone’s does), and six months of slow recovery, she was finally able to walk to class again. Lauren’s difficult experience is not unique. According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year one in six Americans—that’s 48 million people!—suffers from a foodborne illness. Health effects are wide-ranging and long-lasting; many people suffer consequences that will last the rest of their lives. The CDC also estimates that 128,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases every year. As Lauren said, this is not a rare form of cancer that we don’t yet know how to treat. This is bacteria. If we take the right precautions to detect it, we can eliminate it.

Lauren shared some practical knowledge at the April 4 brown-bag lunch. For instance, she said, water does not wash off bacteria; it only gets rid of dirt. Only cooking your food kills  bacteria. Also, “organic” does not necessarily mean safe. Neither does local, although eating locally grown food does reduce some risk. To stay informed about outbreaks in your area, you can join a listserv through STOP Foodborne Illness at

Solutions also exist at the policy level. Lauren spoke of a woman who died after eating contaminated peanut butter. Peter Pan had known that they had a salmonella outbreak and had chosen to continue selling their product, she said. The Food and Drug Administration lacked the authority to force a recall. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law on January 4, 2011, changed this. The Act also shifted focus from reaction to prevention of outbreaks. However, funding linked to this legislation has been cut significantly. The Microbiological Data Program, which has caught outbreaks by randomly testing produce in supermarkets, faces elimination. More advocacy is needed to ensure food safety.

Have Lauren’s eating habits changed dramatically? Not really. She has stopped eating raw spinach and sprouts (which are tough to clean). But she has chosen not to fear her food. “My life has changed enough,” she said. “I don’t need to dwell on this.”

To learn more about foodborne illness and food safety, visit News 21: How Safe is Your Food at You can also hear Lauren at and read more on this topic at

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