Graphic of soup bowl

Food safety — whose minding our meals?

Sound Consumer | July 2001

by Goldie Caughlan, PCC Nutrition Education Manager and Consumer Representative, National Organic Standards Board

While health officials still credit the U.S. food supply as one of the safest in the world, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 76 million of us get sick each year from foodborne pathogens. More than 325,000 will be hospitalized and 5,000 will die.

What will tomorrow bring, given an increasingly globalized and mechanized food system? It's of grave concern to food research scientists, food safety policy makers, public health officials, regulatory agencies, food manufacturers and distributors, wholesalers and retailers. It must concern us. The most vulnerable and at risk are the elderly, the very young, and immune challenged individuals, but all of us are as susceptible as the next bite.

Modern surprises

Three pathogens alone — salmonella, listeria, and toxoplasma — account for about a third of the deaths, while unknown agents are blamed for the rest. In fact, the CDC says foodborne diseases probably account for far more illnesses overall than previously estimated. Surveillance is complicated by many factors, especially underreporting.

Physicians or other healthcare providers on the front lines may not always have up-to-date information on symptoms of food related illness and therefore may not ask the right questions. That's not surprising, since many foodborne pathogens today are among the most virulent and most troublesome to prevent in many kinds of foods.

Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Cyclospora cayetanensis have only been identified as foodborne pathogens within the last two decades. Experts expect more pathogens to surface in the future.

Causes of foodborne illness include viruses, bacteria, parasites, toxins, metals, and prions (the latter may ring a bell for you: think "Mad Cow" disease). Symptoms cover the map — from mild stomach upset to vomiting, headache, diarrhea, or life-threatening syndromes, including neurologic, hepatic and renal failure.

Patchwork protocol

In 1997, Congress asked the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a division of the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to request a preliminary study of our food safety system by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In August 1998, the report was released, Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption. It notes that there's a patchwork of at least 35 federal statutes regulating food safety, handled by a dozen agencies and departments. In addition, there's all manner of "Memorandums of Agreement" (50 MOAs currently), with nearly 30 congressional committees charged with providing oversight for all those laws and agencies!

Changes in the food system

There have been fundamental changes in the past half century in how we grow our food, how we get it, where we get it, and what we eat. Grocery stores in the 1960's handled perhaps 7,000 food items. Today's mega-stores stock more than 30,000 with an additional 12,000 items added each year.

The NAS notes that from 1970 to 1995 fewer people ate from their own gardens and consumption of commercially grown produce increased — from 24 to 31 pounds per person annually. Thirty percent of all fruits eaten fresh and 50 percent of fish and shellfish today are imported.

Changing habits

During this same period, we dropped our red meat consumption dramatically and shifted to nearly twice as much chicken — going from 27 to an average of 50 pounds per person a year. This correlates neatly with the increases in Campylobacter and Salmonella in foodborne illness statistics, since both are associated with chicken.

In 1970, a third of our food dollars was spent eating out. Now it's more than 50 percent and rising. The NAS makes a strong point that many working in the food service trade are very young or have limited English, so they may speak but not read effectively. They are very poorly paid generally, and may have limited food safety training. I would add that desperation is a fact of life for many of these workers at the bottom of the economic ladder. They are picking our harvests in the field (where frequently there are no toilet facilities or wash-water setups), they're plucking chickens in fast-moving poultry plants, working in food factories, and handling foods in both fast-food and up-scale restaurants. They need the job and each day's pay. Many will continue to work each day and not report potentially infectious illnesses.

More processed foods

Scores of new and unusual methods for producing and processing foods have been developed in the past two decades, too. These include irradiation, bioengineering, so-called "neutraceutical or functional" foods, and unusual ingredients from food technology labs. As food habits have changed, more meat substitutes have appeared, such as soy hotdogs and bologna, or gluten-based seitan foods. Dairy substitutes include "milk" from soy, grain or seeds, as well as "cheese" from all of these. The safety implications and concerns are that conditions for storage, and how to recognize spoilage, are not well understood by some wholesale or retail vendors, or by consumers in the home.

NAS recommendations

The NAS makes both general and specific recommendations. It calls for wholesale changes in meat slaughterhouses, eliminating carcass-by-carcass inspections in favor of "modern" systems. In other words, with the kind of disease organisms that now can and do present the biggest threats to safety in meat plants, visual inspections are outmoded and inadequate.

The NAS also calls for re-vamping the multitude of food safety statutes. It calls for reorganization of all food safety agencies. It recommends "an identifiable, high-ranking, presidentially appointed" head accountable to the President.

When the report was released, President Clinton formed a Council on Food Safety (CFS). Essentially, the CFS picked up the ball and ran with it, delivering a Food Safety Strategic Plan to President Clinton on the eve of his leaving office, January 19, 2001. Not surprising, the CFS doesn't call for the systemic restructuring the NAS envisioned — after all, the CFS was composed of key figures from those very agencies! The CFS Strategic Plan, however, spells out a significant shift in the role of manufacturers to prevent illness. Producers are expected to have in place a "Hazards Analysis Critical Control Point" plan, or HACCP. Meat plants are mandated to have a HACCP, and more sectors, such as fresh juice, are being held to HACCP plans.

food safety letters graphic

The report also pinpoints many disabling flaws in protecting the U.S. food supply adequately.

Whereas the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS, a division of USDA) has full access to distribution records of food establishments in its jurisdiction (i.e., meat), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no similar inspection authority for food products in its jurisdiction.

Neither FDA nor FSIS has statutory authority to order mandatory recalls and stop sales at any point in the food production and distribution chain. This is shocking! This should be changed.

When either USDA or FDA has reason to believe that unapproved, illegal animal drugs have been used on animals (while no testing methods exist to show such residues), they currently have no clear-cut authority to declare the sale of the meat illegal. Incredible!

Assessing pesticide risks

For its part, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relies on a mish-mash of data collected by grower organizations, private companies, states, and federal agencies to cover the thousands of uses of pesticides on agricultural crops. There's no way EPA realistically can estimate the amount of pesticides in foods! The CFS Strategic Plan calls for authorization to EPA to mandate that all records of pesticide use be furnished.

The CFS Strategic plan points out that there's no authority granted to FDA or other agencies to levy fines against violators of food safety laws. EPA has only limited authority to fine pesticide violators. That should be strengthened and increased.

Which brings us to yet another set of initials to add to the alphabet soup: The Food Quality Protection Action Act (FQPA) was truly ground-shaking legislation, passed in 1996. The FQPA mandated that EPA develop and implement regulations to enhance protection of the U.S. food supply from pesticide risks. A key provision directed EPA to evaluate all pesticide residue risks, based on aggregate exposure to all pesticides sharing common toxicological effects upon humans.

The FQPA provoked angry, anguished outcries from the pesticide industry, as well as from chemical-dependent, industrial agriculture interests. Heavy lobbying and political pressures have greatly slowed progress of the law's intent and led to more committees and task forces, such as the EPA-USDA Tolerance Reassessment Advisory Committee (TRAC). I haven't tracked TRAC yet, but I see that one of its stated missions is to "establish an effective means of consultation with pesticide user groups and others concerned with FQPA implementation." Hmmm.

Meanwhile, consumer advocates have sued EPA for not moving fast enough and going far enough. Last month, EPA agreed to an amended consent decree in the U.S. District Court in California to resolve lawsuits filed over decisions affecting certain pesticides. In short, EPA settled with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). EPA agreed to set deadlines to reassess pesticide risks, as well as to review and re-register some older pesticides.

The settlement also requires EPA to start review of pesticides under the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP). EPA must begin the basic process to help find answers to substances such as dioxin that end up in the soil, in the water, and concentrate in our fish, meat, dairy and other foods. What part does dioxin play in the numerous changes in our reproductive patterns and that of other land and water life?

Consumer beware

Do all these reports, committees, and agencies really address consumer concerns about food safety? What about the effects of genetically engineered (GE) foods? As for those artificial food additives, colors, and flavors, what about the fact that most never have been adequately tested? Then there are the artificial sweeteners and phony fat products. Aren't they food safety issues, too, even though they don't necessarily involve "a foodborne disease?" They are under the jurisdiction of FDA.

Mercury levels in some fish, such as swordfish, shark and tuna, are now so high that children and women of childbearing age, pregnant, or nursing, should avoid eating them. These are critical food safety issues, but with far-reaching implications.

Sprouts, all sprouts, are now required by FDA to be labeled as hazardous unless they're cooked. Home sprouting is considered equally hazardous since the seed itself can shelter a pathogen, which isn't destroyed during sprouting. Most sprouting facilities now have HAACP programs in place. There has also been a move toward pasteurization of sprouts. Just as we never thought juice would all be bottled and pasteurized, who knows what may happen?

With raw milk not available, and "ultra-pasteurized" milk more common, are we going in the right direction? Ultra-pasteurization is done to prevent spoilage, but it's not so much to protect as it is to add shelf life, so that "fresh" milk can be shipped farther. Even the two leading brands of organic milk are now "ultra-pasteurized." Those "use by" dates are unreal!

Most people accept that pathogenic E-Coli is probably in hamburger, but they should cook it with a thermometer, since the color change to brown is not a reliable indicator of safety. Since not enough people do that, it's now legal to treat beef with ionizing radiation. Of course these examples are related to the growing conditions, the slaughter conditions, and the shoddy, speedy plant inspection systems. As long as we rely on mass production yet demand (rightly) a high degree of food safety assurance, the illogical will become logical to the rule makers and regulatory bodies.

This underscores more than ever why our buyers make it a point to know our suppliers. It's why PCC advocates knowing where your food comes from.

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