The scene has played out countless times on TV westerns: a grizzled, saddle-weary cowboy strides into a noisy saloon and is casually greeted by the bartender with the predictable three words —"pick your poison."
In one sense, that phrase could be just as aptly applied to 21st century consumers dealing with the most diverse, integrated — and complicated — food system in human history.
Whether they are conscious of the fact, consumers are choosing among two starkly different options, according to one food safety expert. They could stick with the current system — one that is as inexpensive, convenient and diverse as it is mind-numbingly complex and prone to occasional, sometimes calamitous breakdowns in food safety — or they could demand a new system that is safer, albeit far more costly and considerably less convenient, says Dr. Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.
Back to that phrase: pick your poison — either option carries a host of pluses and minuses.
A recent recall involving hundreds of food products and stemming from one contaminated food additive speaks volumes about this reality, Weese says.
The additive, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, that tested positive for salmonella, has been processed into hundreds of different food products — yet another sobering reminder of how an isolated incident can be multiplied a hundredfold in this highly integrated food production and distribution system, Weese says.
While incidents of this magnitude occur infrequently, she says they are nonetheless the price modern consumers pay for such a complex system.
"There are definitely tradeoffs," Weese says. "We've got these huge global manufacturers who can produce these products highly efficiently and relatively inexpensively, but when they occasionally mess up — well, we see what can happen."
Even so, Weese says the alternative —a system that adopts a so-called natural approach to farming —would be cost-prohibitive to the vast majority of consumers.
"Some extremely wealthy people can afford such an alternative, but the vast majority of consumers simply can't," she says. "You have to have food that is economical."
"And the fact remains that compared with other countries around the world, the U.S. food production and distribution system remains the cheapest in the world."
Still, Weese says it's incumbent on the current system to become more accountable. How this will be done remains an open question.
"We can pull products off the shelf — we've got one of the most responsive recall systems in the world," she says. "But what can we do upfront to ensure that these recalls don't occur in the first place?"
One answer would involve putting more inspectors in place to inspect food as its being processed. The problem, Weese says, is not enough money available to support this level of inspection for a system this large and diverse.
Add to that so much of the food —not to mention, food additives — consumed by Americans is produced overseas and the challenge becomes even more daunting, she says.
Weese compares the complexity of the current food system to the Apollo moon missions of the late 60s and early 70s.
"This really is a lot like sending a rocket to the moon," she says. "Much like a Saturn V rocket, all the parts in the food must fit and work together just right, and in those comparatively rare cases when they don't, you have a calamity."
Much as a minor feature of the Apollo 13 command module — damaged Teflon wiring insulation — caused an explosion that almost doomed the mission, Weese says a mistake or oversight within the food industry could be multiplied hundreds, if not thousands of times, in the course of the production and distribution process.
The end result: not only a massive recall but also possibly tens of thousands of consumers sickened throughout the country.
Moreover, no matter what precautions are taken, food-borne illness can never be entirely eliminated.
"Bacteria will always be with us and some will invariably get through whatever detection system we develop, no matter how far-reaching and expensive."
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