Monday, February 20, 2012

Rant: Whose Responsibility Is Food Safety?

Have you ever had food poisoning? It can be extremely unpleasant, as well as very dangerous. As there are approximately 76 million cases of food-related illnesses each year in the U.S., chances are that you probably have been affected at some time. Though most of those cases are relatively minor, although you may feel rather miserable, some can be much more serious, with about 323,000 cases requiring hospitalization and 5200 leading to death. So food safety is a significant concern.

I recently read the new book The Philosophy of Food, edited by David Kaplan, a collection of philosophical essays on a wide range of food-related topics, from veganism to sustainability, from aquaculture to Slow Food. For any food writer, this collection will spawn numerous ideas for articles and I highly recommend it. For any food lover, these essays will spark much contemplation about these important issues.

I was especially intrigued by the article "The Ethics of Food Safety in the Twenty-First Century" by Jeffrey Burkhardt, a Professor of Agriculture & Natural Resource Ethics and Policy at the Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. Burkhardt stated: "Although individuals and personal entities have a role to play in ensuring a safe and secure food system, governments are the primary agents to secure, or 'keep,' this public good." This is due, in large part, to the great complexity of the international food chain, where much of it is out of the hands of the average consumer. Most of the problems with food safety globally are associated with bacterial/viral contamination or spoilage but other hazards exist as well such as pesticides, industrial chemicals, and foreign material like waste.

This makes plenty of sense, but it also does not absolve the consumer from their responsibility toward food safety either. Especially considering that the U.S. government may not be doing enough to protect consumers from food illnesses. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates about 80% of our food supply while the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for other 20%. One of the dangers we face is from imported foods, which is a significant portion of our food supply. For example, we import over 40% of our fruit, 15% of our vegetables, and 80% of fish & seafood. The average American diet includes about 18% of imported food.

The problem though is that the FDA inspects very little of this imported food. For example, in 2007, the FDA inspected only 1.3% of the food that it was regulates that was imported into our country. This percentage has actually been decreasing over time, down from 8% prior to the NAFTA and WTO agreements. If so little imported food is being inspected before reaching our tables, then the consumer must take on more of the burden of ensuring their own food safety. In addition, we should be demanding greater oversight from the FDA and other governmental agencies.

Now, meat can be a source of food illnesses, and gets much press, but plenty of other food products can be the culprit as well. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that tracks food safety issues, compiled a list of 10 foods, non-meats, that cause a significant amount of food illnesses. At the top of that list are leafy greens, which are responsible for 24% of all non-meat outbreaks. Tomatoes, sprouts and berries also were in the top ten. Eggs came in at second place while tuna occupied third place. Even ice cream made the list, in seventh place.

We should be advocating for the government to do more about food safety, but consumers also need to arm ourselves with the knowledge to address food safety issues on their own. There are plenty of sites where you can go for more information about food safety.  For instance, you can check out the blog by iPura, a food safety company. Some of their most informative articles include: 5 Things Every Consumer Should Know About Food SafetyQuick Food Safety Checklist For Grocery ShoppingFood Safety For Busy People - 5 Keys To Better Health, and Food Safety Myths & Facts - Arm Yourself With Truth. These are practical articles, which will help you make better decisions.

Many cases of food borne illnesses are preventable, if the proper precautions are taken in cleaning, storing and preparing your food. It is your obligation to understand your role in food safety, and do what needs to be done to protect yourself and your loved ones.

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