We’re all just irresponsible wimps


They were two widely differing articles — “A Nation of Wimps,” from a 2004 issue of Psychology Today, and “Food Is Much Safer Than You Think,” in the June 14 Wall Street Journal — but they both surfaced on my desk this week and caused me, once again, to wonder what happened to common sense in this country.

The article on “wimps” notes that today’s “hyperconcerned” parents are doing too good of a job protecting their kids from life’s bumps that these children (and now adults) have never developed coping skills or ways to deal with challenges, hurt and failure.

“That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety,” writes Hara Estroff Marano. “Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue, but a necessary life skill.”

The bottom line is that today’s over-coddled young people have no clue how to manage for themselves. (I’d ship them all to a farm, or enroll them in 4-H, for at least a summer…)

This uber-vigilance parallel is what I found intriguing while reading the Wall Street Journal article regarding food safety.

The article, by University of North Carolina history professor Peter Coclanis, was written in the wake of the devastating E. coli outbreak in Germany that killed at least 39 people and sickened more than 3,000 others.

Coclanis’ point was, while the outbreak in Europe was tragic, the U.S. food system is remarkably safe.

“If there are roughly a billion eating events daily in the U.S., then there is one death for every 125 million of these events.”

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control notes that over the past 10 years, there’s been a 20 percent reduction in illnesses caused by the pathogens it tracks.

Rates of infection were at least 25 percent lower for shigella, yersinia, campylobacter, and listeria than they were a decade ago. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for salmonella, the most commonly diagnosed and reported foodborne illness. The incidence of salmonella infections has declined by only 10 percent since the CDC’s new FoodNet surveillance began in 1996.

The overall decline could be due to several factors, including regulations and food industry actions to improve food safety. And I think we’re all a little more aware and educated about food handling practices.

I am not — repeat, I am not — saying a food-related illness or death is meaningless. I am saying the world will never be truly “safe enough” for people who want to be free from danger.

This is not a large vs. small farm thing; this is not an organic vs. conventional thing. All food, no matter where or how it is produced, is susceptible to bacteria.

The common sense thing is for growers to take responsible steps to prevent growth and spread of the bacteria, for processors and other food handlers to do the same, and for consumers to clean, separate, cook and chill. We will not eliminate foodborne illness, but we can take responsibility for our own food safety.

Your mother and Uncle Sam can’t protect you all the time.


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