October 4, 2011

Too many food recalls?

Eat, drink and be green? Not green as in organic, but green as in sick.

Did you throw out a cantaloupe last week “just to be sure,” although the one case of illness in Virginia from listeria occurred in someone who had recently traveled? This outbreak of food-borne illness in the United States is the deadliest in more than a decade, and makes many of us leery about what we put into our grocery carts. The more I researched this topic, the more I worried. There’s a lot of scary info out there, and I’m talking about government websites, not just watchdog groups. It makes "Virginia Grown" look better and better. Somehow, I trust my local farmers more than the factory farms.

Not too long ago we had salmonella-tainted peanuts; then questionable eggs; later deadly sprouts in Europe; then tainted ground turkey. Most food poisoning attacks occur shortly after ingesting tainted food. However, listeriosis symptoms can take up to two months to appear. 800 cases are reported in the U.S. each year.

Food recalls have become all too routine since the “great Alar apple scare” of 1989, and they are more frequent than you think. Check out the “Food Safety Recalls” link here on my blog (top left) to stay informed about the almost daily (yes daily!) recalls of foods.

Another good resource is Food Safety News and their foodborne illness outbreaks. It's great incentive to diet!

Chew on this — Putting politics aside (although food politics is a current hot topic), the often-maligned EPA reminds us that October is Children’s Health Month and that “protecting children’s health from environmental risks is fundamental to EPA’s mission.”

For years, the food industry has usually agreed with consumer groups on the need to modernize the nation’s food safety inspection system because recalls are expensive. Yet recent budget cuts to the FDA and USDA guarantee more food inspectors on the unemployment lines and more food-borne illnesses. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Too many mistakes in that farm-to-table chain are happening.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama on January 4th, 2011. It aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. Yet key parts of the food-safety system clearly fail on a regular basis. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, about 1 in 6 people in the United States get sick from food poisoning each year; 128,000 are hospitalized; and about 3000 die.

15% of our food comes from other countries. Who is inspecting that?

Lettuce be safe — Packaged greens, with E.coli bacteria occasionally lurking in them, have been the culprit in recent recalls. These packaged greens are designed to stay “fresh” for up to two weeks, but I’ve seen some nasty dark limp leaves within only a few days.

Speaking of preservatives, I’m doing some unofficial food research in my bread drawer after I found a bag of sandwich buns well-hidden under a bag of pretzels a month ago. The “sell by” date was Jan. 19, 2011, but there’s no mold yet. That “retard spoilage” ingredient, calcium propionate must be potent stuff., even if the FDA considers it safe for human consumption.

A 2002 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health states that children who suffered from restlessness, inattention, sleep disorders and irritability improved when bread without this preservative became part of their diet. What’s a mother to believe?.

More food for thought — Most of us are in the dark when it comes to how most food is grown and raised on “factory farms.” Probably best we don’t know.

Whether you accept the documentary Food Inc’s frightening look at industrial agriculture and toxic pesticides and bacteria or simply worry about the frequency of food recalls, “caveat emptor” is a worthy motto for consumers.

We want to trust farmers and ranchers, but should we? More and more pesticides are used on our crops, and more genetically-altered foods are on the horizon. Portion control may not be the only control we need. But that takes us back to "food politics."