Is Your Supper Safe?

By Ben Hewitt, September/October 2009

With recent outbreaks of E. coli in beef and salmonella in peanuts, sitting down to dinner may seem hazardous to your health. Can it really be so bad? EatingWell investigates.

"I'm not one who believes that everything has to be refrigerated shortly after it has been served. Many time, we leave dinner out all night, and we have the next day. None of us has ever gotten sick as a result of this. We're European,...

Who’s Responsible?

There are two governmental agencies tasked with monitoring and inspecting our food supply. The first is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Through the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), it oversees all domestic and imported meat, poultry and eggs. The other agency charged with keeping food safe is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s responsible for the safety of our domestic and imported fruits, vegetables, seafood, dairy and grains, as well as processed foods. While the USDA puts an inspector in every single slaughterhouse, every single day, the FDA conducts inspections an average of every seven years. Only about 1 percent of the food showing up on our shores is examined for contaminants. That’s particularly alarming when you consider that 79 percent of our fish and shellfish is imported, along with 32 percent of our fruit and nuts and 13 percent of our vegetables.

So, yes, buying food in the United States is an act of faith: faith in the grower, the processor, the wholesale distributor, the shipper and the retailer, because at each junction lies the potential for contamination, and at very, very few of these points are inspections happening.

Yet most of our food is safe, and technology that kills E. coli, salmonella and other foodborne “bugs” is readily available. The USDA mandates pasteurization—the intense heat treatment that, back in the 1860s, French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered killed bacteria—for all milk that enters interstate commerce. Irradiation, or zapping food with tiny doses of radiation, is sometimes used to sterilize meals for hospital patients, and irradiated beef patties are available in supermarkets nationwide. In August 2008, the FDA ruled that iceberg lettuce and spinach could be irradiated too.

If the spinach that Ashley Armstrong ate three years ago had been irradiated, would she have been spared the dialysis and intensive medical interventions that keep her alive today? Yes, says Douglas L. Archer, Ph.D., associate dean for research at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “But we don’t have the capacity to irradiate everything today. We just didn’t invest in those facilities.” Should our food industry be investing in the facilities? “Yes, but that’s me,” says Archer. “A lot of other people think it’s some kind of voodoo.” Indeed, many consumers view irradiation (and even pasteurization) with a great deal of skepticism, arguing that they are “unnatural” or, at the very least, unnecessary measures that compromise the taste and nutrition of farm-fresh foods. And even if irradiation might have prevented the illnesses and deaths associated with the E. coli-contaminated spinach, the technology doesn’t guarantee absolute immunity from foodborne illness. “We can’t just say, ‘OK, we’ll irradiate stuff and that will be the end of all problems,’” says Archer. “It just isn’t that simple.” No food is 100 percent safe. It was pasteurized milk—not “raw” milk—that carried the Listeria monocytogenes that was responsible for the three deaths and a stillbirth in Massachusetts in December 2007. (Health officials believe that the products were somehow contaminated after pasteurization.)

Next: Multifarious Mishaps »

Get a full year of EatingWell magazine.
World Wide Web Health Award Winner Web Award Winner World Wide Web Health Award Winner Interactive Media Award Winner