It seems that every day we’re told to eat more fruits, vegetables, chicken, fish, and whole grains to help prevent cancer and heart disease. At the same time, we hear voices of authority warning that many fruits and vegetables are grown with pesticides, poultry may be a source of bacteria, fish may harbor parasites and pollutants, and corn may be contaminated with carcinogens. Just when we start to worry that few things are safe to eat, we’re told we’re more likely to get sick from food that is not prepared safely than from pesticides and additives! And how safe is our food? Let’s continue for some important points answered.
Last year, a string of incidents, including a national report on pesticides and the discovery of cyanide in two imported grapes, led to a surge of media attention to the issue of food safety. It fueled our fears about the food we eat, the safety of which most of us have long taken for granted. In point of fact, our nation’s food supply has probably never been safer than it is today, and is probably the safest in the world. We’ve come a long way since “whitening” diluted milk with chalk and other cases of food adulteration were common. Thanks to government regulations, there are standards that processed foods must meet, and food labeling is controlled. At the same time, most people in developed countries today, unlike our ancestors, have access to refrigeration, so foods are less likely to spoil.
Yet even with all our modern-day progress, some of today’s concerns about food safety are valid. What are the biggest threats to our health, and who is responsible for ensuring that the food we eat is safe? Is it the food industry or the consumer? What is it that worries us the most, what should be our greatest concerns, and what can be done about them?
How often have you bitten into a fresh, crunchy, juicy apple and found a worm? Unless the apple came from a tree in your own backyard, that probably hasn’t happened often. With the use of a wide variety of pesticides, many commercial growers of fruits and vegetables grow crops unspoiled by insects and disease. Consumers have come to expect perfect produce at low prices, yet become alarmed at reports that question the safety of pesticides. Last year, for example, attention focused on Alar, a chemical used primarily to regulate the ripening of apples. Since Alar is known to cause cancer in animals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting studies to decide if it should be banned entirely. In the meantime, the company that produces Alar has voluntarily stopped selling the chemical for use on any apples grown in the United States.
The use of pesticides for growing foods has been regulated by the government since 1910. Findings that some pesticides cause cancer, sterility, and nervous system damage, or that they linger in the environment for years, have led some to be banned. The EPA sets acceptable levels of pesticide residues in foods, and routinely tests foods to make sure those standards are not exceeded.
Why, then, are pesticides still of concern to consumers? Some people think that the federal government’s standard–one case of cancer due to the pesticide per million people–is not strict enough. In addition, methods for detecting negative health effects from pesticides and other chemicals have improved over the years, leading to the discovery that some once-acceptable substances are no longer safe.
There is also concern developing about the effects if pesticides on infants and young adults. Last year two agencies, an environmental group called the Natural Resources Defense Council and the government’s National Research Council, studied the health effects of pesticides on children. Both groups concluded that youngsters are more vulnerable to the effects of pesticides for two reasons: they tend to eat more fruits and drink more juices than adults, and they have a lifetime for the ill effects to build up. They may also be more susceptible to disease because their neurological system as well as their digestive system, which is their first line of defense against harmful substances, is still developing.
Food additives include colorings, flavoring, stabilizers, and preservatives. They keep cake mixes from clumping and salad dressings smooth and creamy, and they prevent many other processed foods from spoiling. Most processed foods contain some additives, which may be either natural, that is, made from fruits and vegetables, or synthetic. Red dye number 2 is a well-known example of a food additive that was banned in this country after its harmful effects were discovered.
But there are still additives on the market today that may be harmful. For example, sulfites, primarily used to keep vegetables fresh, have recently come under suspicion. This additive can cause severe allergic reactions, and even death, to thousands of people (including many asthmatics) who are sensitive to the chemical. Currently, sulfites are nor allowed to be used on fresh fruits and vegetables, but may be added to prepared foods sold in supermarkets and restaurants, such as wine, dried fruit, and fresh, pre-cut potatoes.
Antibiotics in meats have long been of concern to many consumers. These drugs are used in small amounts in animal feeds to increase the animals’ growth and to prevent disease. Such long-term use of antibiotics can produce strains of drug-resistant bacteria. People eating the meat could then become ill from the bacteria, although this has happened most often in people already taking antibiotics for medical reasons. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors animal products to make sure their antibiotic content is low and within legal limits. However, the question of whether this and other safeguards are adequate to protect people’s health continues to be debated.
The Consumer’s Contribution
The concern about food safety often focuses on pesticides and food additives. People tend to blame food industries and government agencies for making them question the safety of food. But in reality, consumers themselves are more often responsible for food being unsafe. Many researchers feel that there is a greater risk of illness and death from bacterial contamination of foods than from any other source–something consumers can often prevent.
Why this discrepancy between what the public and what the experts see as major problems concerning food safety? For one thing, people fear cancer and long-term health effects far more than they do digestive upsets, ad serious as those might be. Most don’t usually think that food poisoning could result in death. But it can, particularly in the ill, elderly, or very young. Secondly, people tend to be more concerned about things that are out of their control, like additives and pesticides. Thirdly, consumers often don’t think about food safety being a problem in their own home or favorite restaurant.
In sheer numbers, more people suffer from food poisoning than will ever get cancer from pesticides. Each year, more than 2 million Americans report symptoms of illness that can be traced back to foods they ate. Since the symptoms of food poisoning are often similar to those of a stomach virus, this figure probably underestimates the real number of people affected.
There are several different types of bacteria in foods that can cause illnesses. The most common one, salmonella, is responsible for about half the reported caes of food poisoning. It is often found in raw animal products, like meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. Therefore, these foods need to be cooked properly to ensure their safety.
Staphylococcus aureus is the second leading cause of food poisoning in the United, causing 20 percent to 40 percent of the reported cases each year. It is carried in people’s noses and throats, and it can be spread from person to person through food, particularly high-products foods like meats and dairy products that have been sneezed or coughed on. Symptoms of mild diarrhea and sometimes nausea and vomitting appear between two and six hours after someone eats the contaminated food. The bacteria itself can be killed by cooking, but heat does not eliminate the bacteria’s illness-producing toxins. To prevent the formation of toxins, foods should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours, and food handlers should always practice good personal hygiene.
At third strain of bacteria that can cause food poisoning is Clostridium perfringens. Nicknamed “the cafeteria germ,” it often grows in large batches of prepared meats, like turkey, and causes relatively mild symptoms for up to a day after eating the contaminated food. Like Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens produces toxins that cause the symptoms of food poisoning. Foods should be cooked and stored at temperatures either low enough or high enough to prevent the growth of toxins.
A fourth problem bacteria, Clostridium botulinum, is the most dangerous, but fortunately, is also the rarest. The disease it causes, botulism, can lead to dizziness, double vision, difficulties in breathing, and death. Just one ounce of botulinum could be enough to kill 100 million people! Because the bacteria produces a gas, a telltale sign of its presence inprocessed foods could be a bulging can or cracked jar with an ill-fitting lid. Less commonly, botulinum can grow in non-canned foods. There have been cases of botulism from sauteed onions that were kept barely warm for a number of hours. Recently, commercially prepared chopped garlic in a jar was the cause of an outbreak. Heating foods at high temperatures will help prevent botulism.
The Best Defense
The good news is that consumers themselves are in the best position to protect against foodborne illnesses. Here are some ways:
Use common sense when it comes to food and your personal hygiene. In other words, always wash your hands before working with food.
When in doubt, throw it out. If you suspect that a food is no longer safe to eat, discard it. Often the appearance and smell of food is a sign of spoilage, and shouuld not be ignored.
Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold. Bacteria thrive in a moderate environment. Their growth is slowed or prevented under very low or very high temperatures. To prevent food spoilage, make sure that cooked foods, such as meats and poultry, are cooked at high temperatures. Keep frozen, prepared foods frozen until ready to cook, unless specified otherwise on package directions. Thaw frozen meat, fish, and poultry in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped so that air can circulate around it. If you are in a hurry to defrost poultry, you may run it under cold running water, but never leave poultry, meat, or fish at room temperature to thaw.
Use soap and hot water to thoroughly scrub cutting boards, especially after using them for meat or poultry. Raw chicken, turkey, and other poultry products often contain salmonella. Cutting boards, plates, and utensils used for raw poultry can easily become contaminated with the bacteria and can contaminate other foods.
Don’t buy canned or packaged goods that look old, are leaking, or, most dangerous of all, bulging. This could signal the presence of botulinum toxin.
Rinse the tops of cans with hot water before opening. This will keep dust or other foreign substances from getting into the food.
Check the expiration dates on all perishable goods, including milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, and orange juice, as well as on packaged goods.
How to protect yourself from pesticides:
Thoroughly rinse and scrub all fruits and vegetables. Using a soft vegetable brush and a mild soap solution may be most effective.
Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, like lettuce and cabbage. These may contain the most pesticide residues.
Buy lean meats and trim the visible fat from meat before cooking, since pesticide residues in animals may be stored in very small amounts of fat.
All of our concern about food safety has certainly kept few of us from enjoying the pleasures of a fresh crisp apple, a cool glass of milk, or a hot dog at the ball park. But it has made us aware of the necessity for careful control over what goes into our food before it reaches the supermarket–and ultimately passes through our hands onto the dinner table.