Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma

The Egg of Death?

As a service to our readers and with the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we have decided to republish each month’s SAFN column from that publication.  This, then, is the December 2010 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma
By George Armelagos (Emory U) and Kenneth Maes (Brown U)

Much media and scholarly attention has been paid to obesity epidemics. More recently, worry over food safety in terms of pathogenic infection and toxicity has assumed prominence on par with concerns about over-nutrition. George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and recipient of the AAA’S 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service, recently took on both of these issues in an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Research (66[2]:161-186), entitled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Evolution of the Brain and the Determinants of Food Choice.” The article critiques Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ignoring the importance of infectious epidemics caused by industrial food systems in the US. Below, George Armelagos and Kenneth Maes discuss the omnivore’s dilemma in light of last summer’s massive salmonella outbreak in the US egg supply.

Omnivores have a predilection for a varied diet, but this represents a challenge given that new foods are often feared for their potentially poisonous and deadly qualities. This is the omnivore’s dilemma: the confrontation between neophilia and neophobia.

The omnivore’s dilemma for our primate cousins is instructive. The rainforest may seem to be an unlimited source of food, much like a supermarket. But many plants have evolved toxins for their own protection. In 1978, Daniel Janzens commented that the primate world is not colored various shades of green, but instead colored morphine, caffeine, tannin, phenol, oxalic acid, and saponin. Thus potential jungle foods demand careful discrimination.

The invention of cuisine was an essential process in human biocultural evolution. As a cultural system, cuisine determines items in nature that are potentially edible and how they are processed into food, flavored or enhanced, and eaten in a culturally-correct manner.  Cuisine is thus an attempted solution to the omnivore’s dilemma. But not all aspects of a cuisine are adaptive. Aspects of an industrialized food system can be severely maladaptive—and thus the omnivore’s dilemma remains unvanquished for modern humans.

This is illustrated by last summer’s recall of a half-billion eggs after nearly 1300 cases of salmonella infection were reported among US consumers. This massive number of eggs came from only two factory farms in Iowa, which in turn had a common supplier of chicken feed. This attests to the extent of conglomeration in the food industry, driven by a desire for cheaper food, which incentivizes the cutting of safety corners. Neither factory involved in the recall had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight (for details, click here).

In last summer’s salmonella epidemic, hens were individually exposed to infected rodent feces, leading to salmonella infection of their ovaries and thus their developing eggs. In previous salmonella outbreaks spread by chicken eggs, the mode of transmission involved contamination of the outer shells of already-laid eggs. This is controlled by more stringent procedures in preparing eggs for market. Unfortunately, such procedures cannot prevent the infection of hens’ ovaries and thus eggs that are infected “from the inside-out.”

In 1999, Paul Mead and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the US each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma are responsible for 1,500 of these deaths, while the majority of deaths and illnesses are caused by unknown food-borne agents, including toxins, viruses, and other bacteria. For Mead and colleagues, the importance of these unknown agents cannot be overstated. Yet 63% of US shoppers feel that foods sold in supermarkets are safe, though this percentage may be dropping.

Throughout human evolution, contaminated or poisonous foods have posed a problem despite the attempts of cuisine to keep them out of our bodies. Michael Pollan’s popular writings overlook this aspect of the omnivore’s dilemma. For Pollan, the dilemma faced by humans in the U.S. and around the world involves the long-term health consequences of over-consuming sugars, fats and salt. Over-nutrition is certainly important, but is only part of the dietary dilemma faced by people today. A complete understanding of the omnivore’s dilemma must include the more immediate dangers posed by infectious microbes and toxins in industrialized food systems. Perhaps rainforests and supermarkets share a fundamental similarity after all.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

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Filed under anthropology, culture, economics, food policy, food security, nutrition, obesity, SAFN Member Research, sustainability

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