Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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steak with skull and crossbones

David McSwane
David McSwane
Photo by Kendall Reeves; courtesy Indiana University

Poisons on our Plates?

by Elisabeth Andrews

Concerns about food safety are high in American households. From peanut butter to pet food, contamination is cropping up where we least expect it.

In fact, foodborne illness often comes without warning, says food safety researcher David McSwane. "In many instances, the biological agents such as bacteria and viruses that cause foodborne illness are odorless, tasteless, and colorless. Therefore, they don't change the outward appearance of the food," he says.

This ominous statement, coming from the man who literally wrote the book on food safety (Essentials of Food Safety and Sanitation, now in its fifth edition), belies his generally positive appraisal of our nation's food supply. McSwane, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, says that overall, food products pose no greater risk today than in recent years.

"The United States does have one of the safest food supplies in the world. It's not that every time you eat something you are taking your life in your own hands," he says.

There are a number of trends in food production and consumption, however, that warrant a more vigilant approach, according to McSwane. Fragmented oversight, a growing share of imported foods, and an aging and ailing population contribute to a potentially hazardous set of challenges for ensuring the safety of the food supply.

Too many cooks

In January 2007, the U.S. Government Accountability Office designated food safety as a "high-risk" area of federal oversight in need of broad-based transformation to achieve greater effectiveness and accountability. With responsibilities fragmented among 15 agencies collectively administering at least 30 laws, U.S. food safety oversight has become inconsistent, inefficient, and, in certain cases, secondary to conflicting interests.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example, is responsible for both the safety and the marketing of meat products. Of its projected budget of $89 billion for the 2008 fiscal year, only $1.1 billion is earmarked for food safety.

In 2007, the USDA made history by attempting to block a private rancher from testing all his cattle for mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef). Although other countries, including Japan, do test all their cows for this disease, the USDA claimed that the U.S. ranchers' tests would put undue pressure on larger producers to increase testing--and that such a large-scale effort would be bound to turn up false positives, potentially hurting the industry.

This case highlights the inherent conflict of interest within the USDA's missions, McSwane says. Although he believes that mad cow disease is not a proven risk in the United States--only three cases have been found among the roughly 1 percent of domestic cattle that are tested--he is alarmed that an agency charged with ensuring food safety would prevent farmers from undertaking broad testing at their own expense.

"The issue of the false positives was a cop-out. That's where they grossly overstepped their authority," he says. "This is an example of what can happen when a federal agency has different and conflicting missions. On the one hand, the USDA is responsible for assuring the safety of our meat supply. On the other hand, it also represents the interests of meat producers and supports large meat companies."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which handles the bulk of other food safety concerns, also wrestles with the challenge of meeting multiple missions. Although its responsibilities for ensuring the safety of cosmetics and medicinal drugs do not necessarily conflict with its food safety goals, they do compete for the agency's limited resources.

"The number of foods being manufactured and the number of food products being imported are increasing drastically, and yet the support for those food-safety programs is diminishing," McSwane says. "In the 1970s, food safety claimed about half of the FDA's budget. But today, less than 25 percent of its $2.1 billion budget goes to food safety. Obviously, the vast majority of the FDA's budget is going to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, not to the food supply."

A new bill introduced this year proposes the creation of a Food Safety Administration, which would organize food safety oversight efforts under a single federal agency. McSwane says such a move would be beneficial only if it were accompanied by greater funding and administrative support.

"You can't just do a cosmetic change and give it the same resources, collapse current projects into it, and expect a different outcome," he says.

McSwane says the U.S. government needs to fish or cut bait when it comes to its food safety efforts. Unless the federal government intends to greatly increase the regulatory budget, McSwane predicts that food safety responsibilities will soon be turned over to the food industry itself.

"Obviously these agencies have reached capacity. We either have to devote significantly more resources and staffing, or shift the responsibility over to the industry," he says.

Such self-monitoring would not necessarily spell disaster, he says. After all, it is in the industry's best interest to avoid contamination. And many food manufacturers employ stricter safety regulations than what the government requires. But relying on the industry creates the same conflict of interest that has hampered the USDA.

"Undoubtedly, there is value in having an outside set of eyes looking at things," McSwane says.

Overwhelming imports

Among the greatest challenges the FDA currently faces is keeping tabs on imported foods. About 15 percent of all meats, grains, and produce sold in America are now imported. In some categories, such as seafood, the amount of imported foods is as high as 80 percent. But it's impossible to estimate the total share of imported goods in America's diet because food manufacturers are not required to disclose where they obtain their ingredients. For example, many consumers may be surprised that ascorbic acid, a common preservative in packaged foods, comes almost exclusively from China.

And yet, even as the number of imported foods keeps growing, the FDA has received no additional funding to inspect these foods.

"With respect to imported foods, there is no question that this is going to put a strain on our country's food safety resources," McSwane says. "Over the past 10 years, the number of imported food items has tripled while the FDA's food budget has stagnated. As a result, only 1 percent of food imports are physically inspected. As seafood imports climb, the percentage of shipments receiving laboratory test inspections has fallen over the past four years, from a measly 0.88 percent in 2003 to 0.59 percent in 2006."

The best approach to this problem, he says, is to prioritize high-risk foods and those that come from countries with a poor track record.

"FDA inspectors are expected to block tainted imports but often get little information indicating which imports might be dangerous," McSwane explains. "The FDA would be much more efficient and effective at assuring the safety of imported foods if it would implement a risk-management approach. Countries with mixed or subpar safety records would receive closer scrutiny. The United States would spend little time worrying about products from countries considered to have strong food-safety standards, such as Canada and the United Kingdom. Instead, it would focus on products and countries with less stringent regulatory standards, such as China."

The cost of such a program would be approximately $100 million per year, he says--about a fifth of the FDA's food safety budget.

"Such a program would be very resource intensive. However, if we don't make the needed investment in food safety in America, we run the risk of having a food supply that is not as safe as in the present or the past," he says.

At-risk eaters

The changing makeup of the U.S. population also contributes to contamination concerns. People are living longer, and 80 percent of people over age 65 are affected by at least one chronic disease, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, can make people more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from foodborne pathogens.

"Anyone can contract a foodborne illness, but epidemiological studies reveal that certain groups in our society are at higher risk of contracting foodborne illness, and they experience more severe symptoms when they do contract the illness," McSwane says. "The most common groups of people in the high-risk category are the very young, the elderly, pregnant and lactating women, and people with weakened immune systems. For these people, unsafe food and water can be life-threatening."

Of the more than 76 million foodborne illnesses reported in the United States each year, only about 5,000 are fatal. For people who are in generally good health, the most serious effects of foodborne illness are vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.

"Of the 5,000 deaths that occur each year as a result of food-related illness, I would guess that the vast majority involve people in these high-risk categories," McSwane says. "If you are in a family situation where you have people in these high-risk groups, you need to be a little wiser."

Last line of defense

Being a little wiser means shunning raw oysters, undercooked eggs, and produce that has not been cleaned properly, McSwane says. With ready-to-eat foods such as peanut butter and prewashed spinach, consumers should expect food to be safe for consumption. But the great majority of foodborne illness could be prevented with proper handling and preparation of potentially high-risk foods. Raw eggs and raw meat and poultry products, for example, are unsafe for consumption until properly cooked.

"It is very common for poultry and eggs to be contaminated with salmonella bacteria," he says. "All you need to do is cook them. Bacteria are very vulnerable to heat."

Thoroughly cooking meats, poultry, eggs, and seafood, and making sure to wash knives and cutting boards before re-using them for other foods, are among McSwane's top recommendations for food safety in the home. Proper personal hygiene, especially hand-washing, is also essential in cutting down the risk of bacterial infections. McSwane also cautions that some foods, including garlic and onions stored in oil, can harbor bacteria that grow in oxygen-free environments. Consuming foods soon after cooking, or storing in the refrigerator or freezer, will prevent these bacteria from becoming a health hazard.

Washing produce with fresh water, choosing only pasteurized milk products, and avoiding raw seed sprouts (which may carry bacteria from the seeds and their growing environment), can also cut down the chance of foodborne illness.

"To have an effective food safety system, we must have interventions in place from farm to table," McSwane says. "It requires active participation by producers, processors, transporters, retailers, and consumers. Consumers are commonly thought of as the last line of defense, but they can't do it all, and they can't do it alone."

Elisabeth Andrews is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.