The Future is Queasy: climate change and foodborne illness

When traveling the world, you find yourself taking a lot of risks. Often you’ll reflect back on these travels and think: “I can’t believe I got into that car” or “My god! That man was not showing me his knife so I would buy it, he was trying to rob me!”

This is never clearer than in the foods that you are willing to try in the interest of “cultural exchange”.

I, for one, have had several culinary near misses. The one food to finally take me down though was not the under-cooked pig intestine being sold at the side of the road or the vegetables cleansed of amoebas by grape seed oil rather than filtered water – no, it was in fact a completely unadventurous food that finally got me, pizza. Pizza in India. And if I have learned anything from the night in which my insides became my outsides, or the following days in which I had to be hand-fed dal and roti through quivering lips, it is to never eat pizza in India again.

To be fair, one bad pizza in New Delhi should not ruin pizza for an entire country (although I would like to point out that multiple pizzas in Guatemala did not have the same “cleansing” effect on my colon).

Alas with climate change, it appears that independent of where I find myself in coming years, my innards are going to have many challenges ahead, pizza or not. This is because, sadly, climate change could greatly impact food safety; not just in India, but globally.

Now there are so many ingestible things that could make your body explode into illness that I couldn’t possibly go over them all. We are talking innumerable parasites, viruses and bacteria; basically every time you bite into something there is potential for intestinal warfare. As a result, it’s hard to know where to start.

So let’s start easy, let’s talk about salmonella. You know salmonella, that friendly food-borne illness? That mobile bacteria that causes typhoid — you know the disease you kept dying of when you used to play Oregon trail? You usually get it from consuming food or water with large numbers of the bacteria in it, and it causes all sorts of nasty reactions, including death. Fun!

And yes, climate change is predicted to increase the incidence of salmonella outbreaks (1). In fact, when temperatures are above about 40 degrees Fahrenheit – you know, what Californian’s consider cold — salmonella food poisoning increases up to 10% for each one-degree increase in weekly temperature. So think of it this way, the warmer it gets, the higher chance of you eating something you deeply regret (2).

“A-ha!” you say, “If temperature is the problem, then we just need better refrigeration!”

This is not a false argument, as there seems to be a relationship between the outbreak of salmonella food poisoning and the temperature a week earlier. This suggests that better food storage could eliminate many of our woes.

So, what is a food loving girl like myself to do in this warmer, salmonella-friendly environment? Should I be more restrained with my adventures, only eating food that was hermetically sealed in a sterile lab? Perhaps, or maybe I should be more trusting with local foods – though the pizza is the thing that tripped me up, the Aloo Mangodi with mango pickle would have no doubt treated me just fine. Pizza, it turns out, is not the internationally safe food I thought it was. Lesson learned.

Further Reading
(1) Climate change and food safety: a review
(2) The effect of temperature on food poisoning: a time-series analysis of salmonellosis in ten European countries


Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is the Programs & Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education. She wants to personally thank the president for addressing climate change in his inaugural address yesterday, and would like to welcome him warmly to the year 2001. She looks forward to his innovative ideas for addressing the challenges ahead, and hopes that his action today will result in a better world tomorrow. Also thank you to Kimberley who is well ahead of the president in reading my blog and making a suggestion for a future topic. If you have a topic suggestion, feel free to get in touch!

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