ON THE PRESS
- FARM AND COUNTRY By Douglas Powell
(an edited version of this column recently appeared -- dp) Warning: your kitchen dishrag is a killer. According to the front page of the Globe and Mail, "you probably handle an unimaginably dangerous collection of harmful bacteria" while going about your kitchenly chores, and that "90 per cent of food-related illness in the home could be prevented by using paper towels when preparing foods, especially meats." This is truly a breakthrough finding, given there are an estimated 2.2 million cases of foodborne illness a year in Canada, at a social cost of $1.3 billion. If 90 per cent of the home-based portion of those numbers can be eliminated, then scientific papers should be published. People should be healthier. Prizes should be awarded. This will not happen. The killer-dishrag story will, however, meet the primary goal of its creators: to sell more sponges. Specifically, anti-bacterial sponges manufactured by 3M Co. of Minneapolis, Minn. Ever since the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak of hamburger disease in Seattle that killed three young children and sickened over 500 in Jan. 1993, there have been a steadily increasing number of media accounts about hazardous bacteria in the food supply. When combined with stories about the Ebola virus, flesh-eating disease and antibiotic resistance, there is a huge increase in killer bug stories. Manufacturers have kept pace. Dial soap is now advertised as "killing more bacteria" than competitors. Clorox bleach is shown in television commercials as the only effective way to rid the kitchen countertop of salmonella. And now the anti-bacterial sponge. Dr. Charles P. Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was contracted by 3M to perform tests of household dishrags and sponges in five U.S. cities and compare the results to the 3M sponge. Not surprisingly, Dr. Gerba found about 100 times more bacteria in dishrags retrieved from households. Then the public relations firm hired by 3M peddled the results, taking Dr. Gerba on a five-city tour to release the results. That was in Aug. 1995. Several stories appeared on the U.S. wire services. Why the Globe decided to run the story at the end of Dec. 1995 remains a mystery. There are other problems. The results have not been published in a scientific journal for scrutiny by other researchers. That was not mentioned in the Globe story. I called the PR firm a month ago and was promised that details were in the mail. They have not arrived. Also, Dr. Gerba’s financial source for this research, 3M, was not disclosed in the Globe story. I have no problem with industry funded research -- I receive some industry money myself and why should taxpayers fund a study of a 3M product -- but it’s always a good idea to declare your sources up front. Some may argue the ends justifies the means, that any message promoting the safe handling of food in the kitchen is good. Except that stories which overstate a risk have been shown to do more harm than good. It’s called the boomerang effect. If a message is oversold or overstated, people stop believing. With killer sponges, the message is more harmful than the bacteria.