June 2009 Issue
Bacteria and Beyond — Getting to the Root of Food Safety Issues
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, LD
Vol. 11 No. 6 P. 56
Robert Kenner, producer of the documentary Food, Inc., said in an October 12, 2008, New York Times Magazine interview, “I’m not worried about threats from abroad. I’m worried about the safety of our food.” Additionally, 73% of the more than 2,000 adults who participated in an online Harris Interactive survey in February indicated that they were equally as concerned about food safety as the war on terror.
“Why should this be surprising?” asks Hugh Joseph, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “What are the odds of being attacked by a terrorist? On the other hand, per recent food recalls, thousands of people every year are consuming contaminated foods.
“Food poisoning in some form (mostly mild) affects millions of eaters annually in the U.S.,” Joseph adds. Not to mention the “countless thousands of farm workers and laborers in agriculture and food processing industries who are poisoned or injured each year.”
Government officials have consistently told the public that the U.S. food supply is the safest in the world. However, in a weekly address to the American people on March 14, President Obama identified the growing number of problems within our food system as a “hazard to public health.” He listed the growth in outbreaks: E. coli-contaminated spinach in 2006, Salmonella-tainted peppers in 2008, and the largest recent outbreak to date of more than 3,800 recalled Salmonella-contaminated peanut products, which sickened more than 690 people in 46 states and left nine dead.
In large Salmonella outbreaks, for every case identified, experts suspect there are another 38 additional, undetected cases. So the number of individuals affected in the peanut case alone may be closer to 20,000, according to a March article in The New England Journal of Medicine.
During his address, Obama blamed outdated food safety laws and regulations, an underfunded and understaffed FDA, and a disjointed inspection and enforcement system. But he didn’t mention the challenge of our super-sized, centralized food system.
Is Irradiation the Answer?
University of Wisconsin physician Dennis Maki, MD, attributes our increased rates and severity of food-borne illness to the “enormous shifts in food production during the past half century. Today, virtually all food consumed domestically is grown and processed on a vast industrial scale or, increasingly, is imported,” he indicates. By shifting from local or regional production to “centralized production and transcontinental distribution,” a single mishap in a production step can result in millions of consumers eating contaminated food.
Jennifer Wilkins, PhD, RD, senior extension associate with the division of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, who examined the spinach recall, agrees that “widespread outbreaks are a modern-day dilemma of centralized food systems.” She believes we’re “unwise to take all of our salad from the same bowl.” In other words, food production that occurs on one or a handful of farms and facilities and then serves the entire nation creates potential public health risk.
“Smaller, more localized production and processing systems make more sense. They’re not immune to contamination,” Wilkins explains. But if problems do arise, “they’re less costly, easier to trace, and have less widespread consequences,” she says.
Maki says irradiation is essential to the safety of “industrially produced food,” and last August, the FDA ruled that ionizing radiation could be used to treat fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach to kill potentially dangerous bacteria. The FDA says nutrient losses aren’t significant, but the losses depend on the specific food, the radiation dose, and the storage conditions.
Valid concerns have been voiced about the production of free radicals or other potentially harmful compounds during the radiation process. Ingolf Gruen, PhD, an associate professor teaching food chemistry and analysis at the University of Missouri, Columbia, says there’s a lack of long-term studies of populations eating significant amounts of irradiated food.
Irradiation equipment and facilities also cost millions of dollars to build and operate. With few facilities, transportation costs will need to be addressed to truck irradiated foods from processing plants to markets nationwide.
Getting to the Source: An Ecological-Systems Approach
To get to the root of our food safety problems, we must understand how our food and larger environment become contaminated with harmful pathogens and what creates more virulent strains.
The Feces Hit the Fan
Because Salmonella and E. coli are found in animal feces, we have to consider critical points of contamination, including irrigation water, the proximity of crops to feedlots, mismanaged and flooded sewage lagoons from concentrated animal feeding operations, slaughterhouse conditions, and whether farm workers have access to sanitary toileting facilities.
When animals are raised in concentration (think factory farms), the environment can’t absorb the vast quantities of waste, so it seeps into and contaminates surface water and groundwater, threatening public health. Such animal feeding systems aren’t “food safe” or sustainable.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2001 report “Hogging It! Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock” indicates that 70% of all antibiotics consumed in the United States are used as feed additives for poultry, swine, and beef cattle.
David Wallinga, MD, director of the Food and Health Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, explains that the practice isn’t safe because it creates more virulent strains of bacteria called “super bugs” that are “transmitted on food, as well as directly to farmers and farm workers.” Excreted antibiotics can also contaminate soil and water.
An international moratorium on the incorporation of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal feeds would reduce the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to a New England Journal of Medicine article.
“Food safety isn’t just about food, after all,” says Wallinga. “It’s about the entire ecosystem.”
Broadening Our Concept of Food Safety
We often think about food safety in terms of food-borne pathogens that make us sick within 24 to 48 hours of consumption. But let’s expand our scope to also include foods, food additives, and contaminants that can lead to chronic disease over time and harm our environment.
Consider trans fats, which increase our risk of heart disease; food dyes, which can exacerbate hyperactivity in children; and bisphenol-A (BPA), the potential endocrine disruptor found in some plastic and metal food and beverage containers. BPA can behave like estrogen and impact health even at very low levels.
Dietitians recommend that their clients eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. But produce free of pesticide residues is safer for our environment, farm workers, and especially vulnerable populations, such as children and pregnant and lactating women. Both pesticide and steroid hormone residues can behave as endocrine disruptors and may increase risk of diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. Choosing foods that are produced without pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones are safer for the long-term health of people and the planet.
Ingredients for “safe” food also consider plant and animal biodiversity, reduced fossil fuel dependence, and a fair taxpayer-supported food safety agency.
— Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, LD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and the “Food Sleuth” columnist based in Columbia, Mo. A Food and Society Policy fellow, she specializes in media literacy and connecting the dots between food, health, and agriculture.
Get the Bugs Out
To help fix the U.S. food system, consider the following:
• Know where your food originated and how it was produced.
• Influence state and national policy.
• Learn, teach, and motivate with film, such as Food, Inc.