By: Christina J. Johns

On a recent Saturday morning, I sat reading the newspaper, trying not to wake up my husband, Gayle. On Friday afternoon, he had come home dehydrated, with stomach cramps, diarrhea, a headache, chills and a low-grade fever. It didn't take us long to piece together the connection between the recall of thousands of pounds of beef, and a hamburger Gayle had eaten on Thursday at one of the fast-food chains mentioned in the recall.

I didn't know anything about E coli. And none of the news accounts included anything as helpful as symptoms or what to do if you suspected you had been poisoned.

No knowing what else to do, I phoned the Poisoning Center and talked to a remarkably matter-of-fact woman who cheerfully told me that unless we started to see blood in my husband's stool, he would probably "weather it." But, I was worried.

When I got him in bed and me on the Internet, I found out that this bacteria could cause not only nasty bouts of intestinal illness - but kidney failure, brain damage and even death. (Dewar, 8/97).

I scoured the newspapers Saturday morning for information. What I found made me really angry. One article quoted an epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control whose finger I could almost see, wagging. "People are getting a false sense of security." He said. "They believe that the government will take care of them....In fact, the government can't do that. Consumers have to play an active role in protecting themselves."

Like how? I thought. Asking the minimum wage employee at Burger King if the hamburger you're buying is going to kill you? Right.

Aside from the general stupidity of the remark, I really resent the way in which government officials and politicians seem to increasingly, lecture and scold the citizenry for being so presumptuous as to expect government to do anything. We fund this government, but when we dare to expect something in return, we are treated as if we were a bunch of spoiled, over-demanding children.

The people of this country pay a lot taxes and we have a right to expect the government to control the food industry and ensure that we are not poisoned for profit through the food we eat.

The general tone of the comments about this whole fiasco in the media was that there just wasn't any way for the government to protect us. But, that's just a lie. There are lot of things that could have been done.

First of all, the techniques being used to inspect meat and poultry haven't changed much since the 1920's when Upton Sinclair first drew public attention to the crimes of the meat packing industry. What we should have learned then is that if you don't regulate these guys, they will poison you to make money.

Hudson Foods Inc., the company that recalled all this beef was recently cited by OSHA for being so profit obsessed they wouldn't even allow their factory workers adequate opportunities to leave the production line to go to the bathroom.

Second, the Agriculture Department, responsible for policing the nation's food supply, has a fundamental conflict of interest since its mission is also to promote U.S. Agriculture.

Thirdly, budget cuts at the Agriculture Department have meant that the number of food inspectors was reduced from about 12,000 in 1978 to 7,500 today. Finally, meat packing industry contributions to both political parties are designed to decrease, not increase, supervision of the industry.

Maybe if politicians weren't so busy giving subsidies to, relaxing the regulation of, and doing their own favor-trading with big business, they might have time to figure out how to more effectively protect the public.

By the way, the fast-food chain in question is now claiming that none of the meat it returned was tainted. Tell that to my husband who is still packing a bottle of Pepto when he goes to work.

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