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How Safe is Our Food Supply?

Feb 1, 2001 SAFE FOOD - Still a long way to go.

Although America's food supply is generally regarded as "safe", recent developments have made it clear that serious problems exist in a number of areas of the food industry. Currently, it is estimated that there are now 235,000 food related hospitalizations and 75 million cases of food poisoning each year. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control still estimates that the annual number of deaths from food poisoning in the United States is approximately 5,000. Clearly, these numbers indicate that the "safety" of America's food supply is somewhat problematic at best.

Consider the following:

1. Imported meat and poultry may pose a serious health risk.

A full 50% of the meat and poultry plants in Mexico (5 of 10) inspected by the USDA failed to meet U.S. standards. The violations found included hair and fecal matter on the product, failure to conduct bacteria tests and the absence of hand washing facilities for workers. As a result, the U.S. immediately stopped importing meat and poultry from those 5 plants. Unfortunately, 27 Mexican plants that were not inspected continue to ship their products to the U.S.

In all, approximately 300 million pounds of meat and poultry are imported each year from Mexico and four other countries. There is no reason to believe that the problems uncovered in Mexico do not extend to the other countries or to the 27 uninspected Mexican plants.

2. Contaminated seafood continues to present a number of extremely serious health risks to consumers.

In the 10 years from 1990 to 2000, contaminated seafood caused the most outbreaks of food poisoning in the United States. In fact, the number of seafood related outbreaks was nearly three times that attributable to beef during the same time period. Moreover, since 1990, more than 120 people have died from eating oysters containing the deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria.

Despite the extremely serious ongoing risk posed by contaminated seafood, only about 25% of the seafood processors in the U.S. have complied with the 1997 government directive by developing a plan, acceptable to the FDA, for detecting and preventing contamination. To make matters worse, the FDA has refused to conduct or require testing for harmful bacteria.

3. Women who are pregnant, nursing, or of childbearing age, as well as young children, should avoid eating certain fish.

It has long been established that large, long-lived fish that feed on smaller fish accumulate the highest levels of methyl mercury in their systems. These fish include shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. As a result, these fish should be avoided by pregnant women and women of childbearing age who may become pregnant because of concern that methyl mercury may harm an unborn baby's developing brain and nervous system.

In addition, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has advised that pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children should eat no more than one meal per week of freshwater fish caught by family members or friends (non-commercial) because of possible mercury contamination.

4. Contaminated eggs are real killers.

Each year, contaminated eggs kill more than 300 people and sicken 600,000 more. The FDA and egg suppliers are working on new labels, warnings, tests and processing measures to ensure that the eggs that make it to market are as safe as possible.

5. Food labeling that is inadequate or misleading can be quite harmful on its own.

There are several areas in which in adequate or misleading labeling practices may be doing as much, or more, harm than contaminated foods. The danger with inadequate or misleading labels is that the problems they are associated with are long term health risks which are often discovered after the damage has been done.

MEAT LABELING - The USDA permits ground beef that is 22 1/2% fat to be called "extra lean". This is quite shocking when one considers that all other "lean" meat products are strictly limited to a 10% fat content. In addition, ground beef is not required to carry nutritional labels which would disclose the saturated fat content.

SUGAR LABELING - Although obesity and diabetes rates in the United States have reached epidemic proportions, Americans still consume astronomical amounts of sugar. In fact, in 1999, Americans consumed a record of 158 pounds of sugar per person. Unfortunately, the extremely powerful sugar and processed food industries have resisted all attempts to require labels that list how much refined sugar is in a food and what percent that amount is of a person's maximum recommended daily intake.

TRANS FAT LABELING - Most people do not realize that, when it comes to heart disease, trans fat is just as bad as saturated fat. Trans fats are made by hydrogenating liquid oils so that they become more solid, more stable and less greasy-tasting. The FDA itself estimates that counting trans fats as saturated fats for labeling purposes could safe thousands of lives each year. A movement is currently on to require such information on food labels.

6. "Functional" foods can be dangerous and should be carefully regulated.

"Functional" foods are those foods which claim to fix dysfunctional diets or cure physical, psychological or psychiatric problems. Ingredients which are touted to boost memory, act as anti-depressants, stop balding or cure impotence, have never been tested or evaluated for effectiveness or determined to be safe when added to foods. In short, the unregulated use of dietary supplements exposes the public to serious health risks as well as fraud.

7. "Biotech" or genetically engineered foods or ingredients have yet to be adequately regulated.

Genetic engineering involves splicing a gene from one organism into a plant or animal. The purpose of such genetic alteration is to create a variation of that plant or animal which possesses a particular trait (or traits) not found in the unaltered plant or animal. The goal, of course, is to create products that are more profitable because they are, for example, able to resist herbicides, insects or droughts (in the case of plants), or, grow larger, more disease resistant (in the case of animals).

While all this sounds like a "win, win" situation that will be beneficial to all involved, there are many scientists and public interest groups which are not so sure and have expressed serious concerns over the lack of regulation and the absence of a more rigorous approval process for biotech products. Potential long-term negative effects or allergic reactions pose the greatest risks, but, it is the uncertainty involved in this emerging industry that worries some experts the most.

The FDA has been very slow to move toward tighter regulations and oversight of this industry since the policy developed under the Bush (George) administration was to consider genetically engineered products to be essentially the same as those produced by conventional means. For the most part, the FDA has chosen to take the position that most genetically engineered foods will be safe for human consumption.

In the closing days of the Clinton administration, the FDA was in the process of modifying its position by proposing some mandatory rules and some voluntary guidelines with respect to testing, notification, scientific descriptions and labeling. Whether the FDA will continue to move in this direction under the new Bush administration bears watching.

8. The inability of nations to isolate themselves from the spread of food-related diseases.

There was a time when a country's geographical location provided a great deal of protection from the spread of diseases from foreign lands. Oceans, mountain ranges, deserts and other natural barriers furnished a high degree of insulation especially when coupled with well-policed borders and strictly enforced customs' practices. Certainly, the United States enjoyed the best of this natural protection being bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande River and heavy forests to the north.

Today, however, international travel is so accessible to almost anyone that a country's borders are easily crossed by people from every corner of the world within a matter of hours. The break-up of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the creation of new countries in Africa, the relaxing of security at many border crossings, the emergence of global terrorist organizations, and epidemics of new and often untreatable diseases (ebola virus, HIV/AIDS, mad cow disease, etc.) have made world-wide travel faster and easier as well as more of a threat to countries like the United States.

Presently, the threats posed by "mad-cow" disease and "foot-and-mouth" disease have stopped the importation of all beef and livestock from Europe. The likely source of mad-cow disease was the practice of feeding rendered animal parts to livestock. The disease, which can be spread to humans, is particularly insidious and results in severe brain damage and death. Thus, it is of paramount importance that the United States keep this disease out of the livestock population here. Americans must also be extremely wary of what they are eating when they travel abroad.

Foot-and-mouth disease (or hoof-and mouth) disease is highly contagious. It affects pigs, sheep, cattle, goats and deer. The current outbreak has been traced to a single farm in England where livestock was being raised in deplorable conditions and government officials ignored warnings about the problem.

Although the disease is not fatal, it causes blisters or sores on the infected animals' feet and mouths and affects growth and milk production. Since the disease is extremely contagious, all of the infected animals must be destroyed.

The disease is easily spread. It can be transmitted by air or in particles of soil on shoes, tires or hooves. The virus is able to live in human nasal passages for about 28 hours where it can be transmitted by a sneeze. While foot-and-mouth disease does not affect humans or poultry, if spread to the Untied States, it could result in the extermination of our entire supply of livestock. The last outbreak of the disease here was some 70 years ago.

In order to prevent the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease into the United States, imports of livestock, fresh meat and unpasteurized dairy products from the fifteen Nation European Union have been banned. In addition, custom officials and inspectors from the Agriculture Department have stepped up inspections at airports and seaports. Special procedures, including questioning and disinfecting of shoes and boots, are being utilized in connection with any traveler who may have visited a farm while visiting any of the countries involved. Trained dogs are also being used to sniff out any banned products and muddy footwear.

If the above information reveals anything, it is the fact that the safety of our (and the world's) food supply can no longer be taken for granted. In order to avoid a national (or global) catastrophe, public officials, farmers, food processors, scientists and other experts as well as consumers must all do their part in the ongoing battle to keep our food safe and pure and able to be freely imported and exported among the nations of the world.
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