The Trouble With Food Poisoning

What drives a relatively sane man in the 21st century, who hasn't been abandoned on a remote spaceship or isn't starving on an island, to eat spoiled food?

I'm guessing you should know, as I do, because we've all done it. How many times have I opened the fridge on an afternoon looking for lunch, only to find that the hummus I opened six days ago is smelling just a little bit sour? That should still be okay, right? Or what about that blue-green algae growing on the cream cheese; if I just scoop away the bad parts, the rest is still fine, right?

When in doubt, throw it out? No way. More like, what's the worst that could happen?

Well, that's how I felt for close to 20 years of adult life, until what-me-worry? eating finally caught up with me. It was an orange that did me in. It looked great, aside from the quarter of it that had developed a white and green growth on the bottom. I cut off the nasty parts and ate the rest. It tasted fine. But, within an hour, I was writhing with stomach pain I had never felt before. And then the fever took me. I was sick for 24 hours. I was shocked. I was suffering from food poisoning.

More formally known as food-borne illness, food poisoning is about as plentiful in the U.S. as half-eaten pizzas and cartons of slightly old milk. There are 48 million Americans who get food-borne illnesses each year; 125,000 are hospitalized. And 3,000 die.

When someone eats an old sandwich and gets sick, it's very unlikely that he or she will die from it. The cause is low-grade bacteria that have been allowed to grow in sufficient number to cause sickness. It's usually a 24– to 48-hour illness that involves diarrhea and fever. Where you can get into serious trouble is if you're unlucky enough to have an old sandwich that happens to have serious bacteria, like e coli, present.

"The game with bacteria is infectious dose," says Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has become the go-to guy for food-borne illness cases. "The longer pathogenic bacteria has to multiply, the greater the infectious dose."

Marler's firm has won $600 million for his clients, including a case against Jack in the Box, which resulted in a landmark $15.6 million settlement. So there's big money involved here. His cases are against corporations. I was shocked to hear that Marler doesn't know of any in which someone sued a friend or acquaintance for serving old, spoiled food (not that he'd take such a case, he adds). It seems like it must have happened so many times. I guess it's just one of those universally accepted facts: food poisoning happens. (Even Marler got a bad case of the runs after a reunion in which he gorged on German ethnic food).

Since my orange incident, I've curtailed my more risky ventures. But the gray area always looms — fruit that's a little mushy, salad that gets a bit brown. It's hard to know where to draw the line of throwing something out.

Marler points out that, through evolution, since being Neanderthals, we have learned where the line is drawn through knowing the basics of good food (uh, smells good) and food gone bad (uh, smells bad). But that's assuming we still live like animals in nature, intimately involved with the food we eat to survive.

We're way past that. Now, we rarely know what's in our food —good or bad. We've become complacent. It turns out that it's we who've become spoiled.

Ah, didn't some wise man once say that our fridges are the mirrors to our true selves?