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October 17, 2009

What to do when nothing is good for your health

I’ve done some exhaustive research on the matter, and I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done other than to face the awful truth with a steely resolve.

There is absolutely nothing we can eat. Oh, there would seem to be plenty of food around. The trouble is, whatever you’re thinking of eating is going to kill you.

The front page of the Oct. 4 Sunday New York Times had a frighteningly chilling story about all the cruddy stuff that goes into a hamburger. Upton Sinclair’s meatpacking industry exposé novel, “The Jungle,” became a best-seller in 1906 because, he said, “the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.”

Well, old Upton had nothing on Michael Moss, the lad who wrote that New York Times story. While there is no disputing that Moss’ work is a wonderful piece of investigative journalism, I haven’t been able to look a burger in the face since I read it.

I mean, odds are I’ll be among the millions of folks who won’t happen to die or be paralyzed from contact with an E. coli pathogen.

But now that I know what may have been in those “Dollar Menu” double hamburgers I had at McDonald’s the day before I read the story, I’m feeling a little queasy.

The federal inspections that started after Sinclair’s novel can’t begin to enforce rules intended to keep a certain amount of fat _ and cow feces _ out of your Whopper, Big Mac or Wendy’s burgers.

I mean, the more you know, the more disgusting it becomes. So, I became determined to do what Mom used to tell me, and eat leafy green vegetables, particularly lettuce and spinach.

And here I thought that sweet old lady loved me.

That was until I read a story that cited a study by a nutrition advocacy group stating that leafy greens are the riskiest food you can eat.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s top 10 list of foods most likely to make you sick has leafy greens at the top, followed by eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.

All are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but a fat lot of good that appears to be doing.

According to FDA statistics, eating that seemingly benign, “good-for-you” stuff can lead to illnesses ranging from minor stomach aches to death.


From a salad?

The study said the top cause of illness from eating one was pathogens such as E. coli, Norovirus and Salmonella in foods that were not properly washed.

So, you just have to make sure you wash your lettuce really, really well before you eat it, right? I mean, nothing simpler, is there? Well, except if you happen to be in a restaurant, and you think you’re really being good when you pass up the fettuccine Alfredo that would most certainly clog up every artery in your body.

“I’ll just have a salad,” you say as your dinner companions nod in admiration of your willpower and restraint even as they order the veal parmigiana.

As you sit there trying to calculate the calories you have just avoided, the daunting thought hits you.

“Geez, I wonder if anyone back in the kitchen has washed the lettuce? I could ask the waiter to make sure someone did that, but then he’s going to tell the chef, and he’s going to get insulted and spit on my food.”

So you shut up, eat your salad and play E. coli roulette.

“Millions of consumers are being made ill, hundreds of thousands hospitalized and thousands are dying each year from preventable foodborne illnesses,” the study said. “Unfortunately, the FDA is saddled with outdated laws, and lacks the authority, tools and resources to fight unsafe food.”

A guy named Robert Fuoss said something that makes a lot of sense: “It would be nice if the Food and Drug Administration stopped issuing warnings about toxic substances and just gave me the names of one or two things still safe to eat.”

The way I see it, we all have a choice. We can just refuse to eat anything, then waste away and die a slow, agonizing death.

Or, we could follow the advice of Mark Twain, who said, “Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”

Or playwright George Bernard Shaw, who said: “Everything I eat has been proved by some doctor or other to be a deadly poison, and everything I don’t eat has been proved to be indispensable for life. But I go marching on.”

Shaw died in 1950, the year I was born. He had marched on until he was 94 years old. That’s good enough for me. I think I’ll do a little marching on of my own and go get me a quarter-pounder.


Sam Pollak is editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.