"In so far as it represents a general truth about people not getting the message, it's a problem. They should be getting the message," says Richard Levinson, MD, DPA, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association. "Runny eggs and red meat -- especially in an immunocompromised patient, but for all of us -- are risky. And people need to be aware of how they cook their food."
Then again, it may be that people have gotten the message but are using their own method to assess risk, says psychologist Baruch Fischoff, PhD, who researches decision-making at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "People hear about lots of things that may be risky," he says. "But they try to figure out how big is the risk. Then, people fall back on their experiences. So if you've never seen it ... that's information there, though that's only a limited kind of information." Fischoff suspects that when it comes to some risky foods, people may not go very far in considering the consequences for a simple reason: They want to eat them.
A risky food that's getting a lot of attention at this meeting is sprouts. One California survey of sprout food poisoning outbreaks concludes there's no reliable way to protect the public from the bacteria that can get on sprouts -- usually Salmonella or E. coli. Not that sprout farmers aren't trying. Many now pretreat sprout seeds with an antibacterial solution. But a Wisconsin study found an outbreak occurred even with this prevention method. Another study from Oregon suggested pretreatment of seeds might help, but perhaps not much.
The president of the International Sprout Growers Association says while there may have been problems with sprouts, the industry isn't getting credit for trying to make its product safe. "If we get through this, all the negativity, we're going to start educating the public about how great sprouts are for you," says Al Sullivan. "It's been real tough for the sprout industry. Somebody needs to look at what we've done and give us a pat on the back. I assure you, we're doing everything we possibly can to bring closure to this problem." Sullivan says that with the increased use of seed disinfectant and microbiological testing, he sees a day when sprouts will be the safest item in the produce section.