Hank Parker, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Medical Center where he teaches a course on biological threats to food and agriculture. He formerly served as a research manager and Acting Director of Homeland Security for the Agricultural Research Service of USDA. His debut novel, Containment, a bioterror thriller, is available now from our sister company Simon & Schuster/Touchstone.
The headlines are enough to put us off our feed. Here’s a sampling from recent issues of Food Safety News:
“Salmonella Presumed Cause of 77 Illnesses, 12 Hospitalizations”
“Hepatitis A Outbreak Linked To Strawberries At Smoothie Chain”
“Three Dead After Thanksgiving Meal”
“Man Is Accused of Putting Poison On Food At Michigan Stores”
With news items like these we can’t help but wonder if our food is truly safe.
The Bottom Line: The U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world—as well as one of the most abundant and affordable. Over 300 million Americans consume over 200 billion meals every year, and the vast majority of them don’t get sick. But that’s far from saying our food safety system is foolproof. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one out of six Americans—48 million people—suffer from foodborne illness annually. Of these, 128,000 end up in the hospital and some 3,000 die. That this accounts for only about one sickness for every four thousand meals is scant comfort to those who have suffered.
Despite its comparative safety, our food supply is vulnerable to contamination from at least 31 pathogens identified by the CDC. This vulnerability stems from several issues:
Contaminants can be introduced at many points from farm to fork.
Supply chains are complex, making them difficult to closely monitor. Our food comes from over two million domestic farms and many overseas growers; is processed, packed, and shipped at tens of thousands of U.S. and foreign sites; and is sold in well over a million retail establishments. And a single menu item may have dozens of edible components. Consider a fast-food burger like a Big Mac: this one item contains nearly one hundred separate ingredients, some of which are imported.
Imports- Americans increasingly demand international foods which now comprise nearly fifteen percent of our diets. Every year some nine million shipments come into the U.S. through 360 ports of entry. Some foods we consume are overwhelming imported. For example, over eighty percent of our seafood comes from overseas. While imports add variety and appeal to our diets, they come with risk, as only about two percent of incoming shipments are inspected. And some imported items—spices for example—come from countries that are not necessarily friendly to the U.S.
Intentional contamination- On December 3, 2004, as he was stepping down from his tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Tommy Thompson famously said, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” In fact, there is a long and sad history of deliberate tainting of food. Perpetrators range from common criminals whose motives may be personal or economic, to rogue nations and terrorists who seek to terrorize or disrupt society.
In close partnership, government and the private sector have made enormous strides in strengthening food safety in the U.S., especially since 9/11. Advances have come through research, public education, and legislation, including the recent passage of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act. And increasingly tougher standards in USDA are reducing foodborne illnesses by some 25,000 annually.
But challenges remain, not the least of which is the complexity of responsibility for food safety in the federal government. Two agencies—the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of USDA, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of HHS share responsibility for food safety, sometimes in a logic-defying manner. Take eggs for example, FSIS is responsible for egg products, but FDA has jurisdiction over shelled eggs. Even more confounding, FDA has jurisdiction over almost all fish, but catfish swim in the USDA pond.
The ultimate responsibility for food safety lies with us, the consumers. Fortunately there is much we can do to protect ourselves and our families. Here are five basic tips:
Educate yourself. The web site http://www.foodsafety.gov is an especially good resource.
Practice four simple steps described at the web site: Clean; Separate; Cook; and Chill.
- Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate.
- Cook: Cook to the right temperature.
- Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Pathogenic bacteria can overspread perishable foods within two hours at room temperature.
Know what you’re buying—and where it comes from. And don’t be shy about asking questions. Purchase from retail establishments that set known high standards for product safety and quality. Do your research! When in doubt, pitch it out.
Above all, be safe. Although the odds of getting a foodborne illness are small, always assume that your food is at risk, and treat it accordingly.