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Food Safety Is An Oxymoron

When we think about what we eat or should or should not eat, most of us focus on things like taste, calories, fat content, carbs, salt, fiber, and whether it offers healthy vitamins. Many people care about specific ingredients in packaged foods that they are allergic to or that they want to avoid for other reasons. Americans need to start recognizing that in a one year period they have a 25 percent chance of getting sick from food. That's because every year 25 percent of the population gets ill from food, with hundreds of thousands hospitalized, and thousands killed. In the

When you are lucky you actually learn about some recall of a food you can either stay away from or quickly figure out whether you have already eaten it. In recent years there have been major recalls for all sorts of food products, including fresh fruits and vegetables as well as manufactured and packaged food products. In 1994, an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning due to contaminated ice cream affected an estimated 224,000 Americans.

Remember the recent peanut butter and spinach problems, and the cookie dough story? Federal health officials say there were 80 people in 31 states sickened by cookie dough contaminated with a deadly bacterium, E. coli O157:H7. Among the pathogens that can harm human health, this oneis one of the most lethal, with no known cure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 70,000 people are infected annually with just this one pathogen, but of course the actual number is unknown because many illnesses go unreported. Once the CDC linked the outbreak of E. coli illness to Nestle cookie dough in June, Nestle immediately recalled about 3.6 million packages at a cost of $30 million to $50 million, according to the company. But such recalls mean that there were insufficient preventive practices in the first place.

People eat the mistakes made by the food industry.

The US Food and Drug Administration's website has a section called Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts. Most of the listings are for food. For August, 2009 there were 23 listings with 19 for foods, including cookies, pie, green onions, cheese products, melons, and lettuce. Some listings are for products that did not disclose certain ingredients that might concern some people. In July, 2009 there were 44 listings for foods. As I scanned for previous months I began to feel sick, because there were large listings for every month. Anyone would surely conclude that they routinely eat foods that have been recalled for safety reasons. Eating is like betting. If you're lucky you don't get sick.

As a news junkie I was astounded at the incredible number and range of the food listings, most representing health risks for consumers. Anyone who checks these listings will face the prospect of becoming totally fearful and paranoid about food safety. No matter how well you follow the electronic or print news let me assure you there is no way that you could possibly know about all the food recalls regularly going on.

Logically, whatever food is being recalled has already been distributed, sold and eaten by people. Which seems to explain why so many Americans, roughly 75 million people a year, are getting sick from foodborne diseases, including 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, and not just getting an upset stomach from a little food poisoning? Think food safety crisis.

By the way, even food personally obtained might be harmful. Note that a recent federal study of mercury contamination found the poison in every single fish tested in nearly 300 streams across the It's the largest study of its kind ever undertaken. More than a thousand fish were tested from 1998 to 2005.

Also, people must accept responsibility for some food poisoning. It sometimes occurs at picnics, school cafeterias, and large social functions, because food is left out of the refrigerator too long or food preparation techniques may not be clean. Another problem is undercooked meats, fish and dairy products. Unsanitary conditions in kitchens and restaurants are also culprits.

The main conclusion I reached after examining this issue is that food safety is an oxymoron. Congress must make all parts of the food industry adopt better practices to reach a much higher level of food safety. In fact, this past July the House approved legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration broad new powers and place new responsibilities on food producers, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. It would speed up the ability of health officials to track down the source of an outbreak and give the government the power to mandate a recall, rather than rely on food producers to voluntarily pull tainted products from the shelves. The Senate is expected to take up its version in the fall. Of course, some in the food industry are lobbying against strong congressional action. Also in July, the Obama administration announced new regulations to curb the spread of salmonella in eggs and naming a new food watchdog at the Food and Drug Administration.

The public must express more outrage about the lack of food safety, otherwise corporate corruption of the political system will prevail and food safety will remain an oxymoron. Being hospitalized or dying from unsafe food is a dismal prospect.

Enjoy your next meal.

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Joel S. Hirschhorn has succeeded as: a full professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison; a senior staffer, U.S. Congress (Office of Technology Assessment); head of an environmental consulting company; Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources, National Governors Association; now an author and consultant. Recent books are: Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money, and Delusional Democracy - Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government. He has published hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines, journals and on many web magazine sites. He has given hundreds of talks at a wide range of conferences worldwide. He focuses on American culture, politics and government, and health issues.