Cheap Seats 2020
Double Standards - 03/25
By Rich Trzupek
In light of the current state of emergency, we should have a frank discussion about standards: here vs. there.
Anyone who has worked at a food processing plant in the US knows our routine. A battery of hygienically-focused preventative measures must be completed before one is allowed to enter the floor and get anywhere near the food. You’ll be issued a hair net and, should you have facial hair, a beard net. Your shoes will be chemically disinfected at a station and you will be required to wash your hands and upper arms with a strong bacteriological cleaner at another. Many plants make you wear a carefully washed lab-coat.
The level of cleanliness within a food plant never fails to impress. Mixers, cutting tables, vats and the myriad of other equipment needed to process food-stuffs for mass consumption gleams. It’s constructed almost universally of stainless steel and cleaned with a frequency and dedication that Felix Unger would find excessive.
Sanitation mistakes in the food processing industry are rare. They are so rare that when contaminated domestically-produced food is found, the event inevitably attracts national attention.
Armies of inspectors observe, test and advise to ensure that standards are maintained. USDA provides its inspectors of course, but every food processing plant has employees whose primary job is to look for, find and correct the smallest of sanitation errors.
Every bit of food produced is uniquely identified before it hits the shelves in the consumer market. Should a problem with a product occur, we have the ability to quickly conduct massive recalls of every item produced in the same lot or at the same plant, as necessary.
We use sophisticated chemical cleaners to keep mother nature’s most effective killers – bacteria and viruses – at bay. In this neurotic age, some people may shiver in fear about the use of this pesticide or that disinfectant. If the COVID-crisis can teach us anything, it’s that the tiny risks associated with the use of those proven protective agents do not come anywhere close to the massive risk associated with ma nature’s more devious agents.
Which brings us to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Before COVID-19 I had no idea what a “wet market” is. I doubt that many Americans did.
My lovely bride, who lived in Asia for years with her first husband, knew all about them. She didn’t shop at wet markets, for reasons that are now painfully obvious, but she understands the role they play in the lives of millions of Chinese. They go to wet markets to get fresh food. Unfortunately, that includes a variety of animals who are slaughtered, prepared and sold in situ.
Wet markets are important, both as a means of commerce and as a part of traditional Chinese culture. It’s that latter piece that makes some of us afraid to identify, much less criticize, the wet market problem. Wet markets have been documented to be the birthplace of many a disease outbreak, which is hardly surprising when one considers that animals are being prepared in a venue with little sanitation and, in many cases, limited access to clean water. The avenues for cross-contamination alone are mind-boggling. Yet, we Americans have become so sensitive to the slightest possibility of offending any culture but our own that some of us are even hesitant to publicly mention the origin of COVID-19, much less have a frank discussion about the unsafe, unhygienic practices that led to the mutation.
In a globalized world, what happens in Chinese wet markets matters to everyone. Giving the PRC a free pass is no longer acceptable. They need to manage their food safety practices and if that distresses some people who love their traditions – oh well. We should respect everyone’s traditions, but we should not allow them to bring us to ruin.
There is a price to paid for biological safety in general and food safety in particular. America and many other advanced societies pay that price every day. Avoiding shortcuts and being extra careful makes products more expensive. Of that there is no doubt. We’ve long been willing to pay that price and it’s time that the PRC paid it too.
A special message to Examiner Readers
A couple of weeks ago The Examiner published a column I composed in which I expressed the opinion that the threat of what we now call the COVID-19 virus had been vastly over-blown. That opinion was based on discussions with a couple of general practitioners whom I like as friends (actually family in one case) and whom I respect as professionals who commented about the epidemic to me. It was their considered opinion that COVID-19 was no more dangerous to the general populace than the common flu.
That opinion holds up. When one compares the mortality rate among non-at risk healthy adults who are not suffering from other immune-compromising conditions or extreme old age, there is no statistical difference between the two. Relatively healthy, relatively young people overwhelmingly tend to live through the common flu and also tend to live through COVID-19.
The difference – a difference that I should have but did not acknowledge – is the rate of transmission. Unchecked, Center for Disease Control data strongly suggests that COVID-19 spreads at a truly remarkable rate, one far in excess of the common flu.
That accelerated rate of transmission does not put otherwise healthy people in substantial danger of dying from the virus, but it does threaten to make enough people sick enough, quickly enough, that so many of the affected populace will seek care in hospitals, emergency rooms, intermediate care facilities, etc., that our entire health care infrastructure would be overwhelmed and fail in part or in whole.
Accordingly, leaders of almost every position and party throughout the country have called upon us to limit our contact with other people until this viral epidemic is well past its peak infection rate. You and I have a unique ability to accelerate the date of that peak infection rate and to minimize the magnitude of the peak, based on our behavior. Both are ways to flatten the “infection curve.” Doing so means that we should practice extra-special careful hygiene, limit our interactions with other people – especially in large groups – as much as possible, and keep our wits about us. I thus unequivocally support Governor Pritzker’s COVID-19 containment initiative and stand with the leaders on both sides of the aisle who support it as well.
This challenge is not about whether you or I are going to die. Experts pretty much agree that we will – eventually. This challenge is about keeping our cool while doing the right things to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our way of life.
Stay cool people. Fonzie would want it that way.