Is Our Food Safe?: A Consumer's Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment

Is Our Food Safe?: A Consumer's Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment

by Caroline Smith DeWaal, Warren Leon

Every day, new warnings emerge about the safety of the food in our markets, school cafeterias, and restaurants. As industry and government officials rush in with reassurances—and food alarmists call for drastic changes in the American diet—ordinary consumers are caught in the middle. Is Our Food Safe? separates the facts from the rumors and offers…  See more details below


Every day, new warnings emerge about the safety of the food in our markets, school cafeterias, and restaurants. As industry and government officials rush in with reassurances—and food alarmists call for drastic changes in the American diet—ordinary consumers are caught in the middle. Is Our Food Safe? separates the facts from the rumors and offers straightforward, reliable advice on how to protect your health and the environment without going to extremes.

Is Our Food Safe? answers common questions about the safety of meat, dairy products, fish, fruits, and other foods that make up our daily diet. It assesses the positive and negative aspects of genetically engineered foods, compares organic and conventionally produced foods, and makes recommendations about when (and if) you should choose local suppliers over industry giants. It also explains which foods to eat and which to avoid if you are concerned about clean water and air and a safe environment. Finally, it provides valuable information on how you can improve the quality of the food available in your communities, including specific issues to raise with grocers and food service providers.

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This guide presents the facts and myths about the safety of meat, dairy, seafood, breads, pastas, fruits, vegetables, water, and other food products, whether conventional, organic, or genetically engineered, that we consume daily. Leon, executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, and DeWaal, director of the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food industry watchdog organization, give commonsense advice on protecting oneself against illnesses caused by contaminated or spoiled food. Focusing on three issues food safety and food-borne illnesses, environmental aspects of food choices, and sound diet and nutrition the book describes the symptoms of food-borne illnesses, the dangers of exposure to bacteria, toxins, chemicals, waste products, pesticides, and other contaminants, and the way these contaminants get into our food supply. The text also explains how to avoid food hazards, what to look for when shopping, and how to cook and prepare food that's free of contaminants. Naturally occurring substances may put consumers at risk as well; to find out more, read James P. Collman's Naturally Dangerous: Surprising Facts About Food, Health, and the Environment. For basic information on food contaminants, this book is solid and well crafted. Irwin Weintraub, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Crown Publishing Group
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IF OUR FOOD IS SO SAFE, WHY ARE WE WORRIED? Confusing messages about food are everywhere. For example, government leaders tell us we have the safest food supply in the world, but they also ask us to memorize complicated food-handling instructions. Are Americans who question the safety of their food being overcautious, or are there really serious problems with what we eat? In short, is food safety a major concern or not?

At first glance, the situation in America today certainly looks good compared to what it was in the past. After all, we could be living in New York City in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Back then, the public water supply smelled from pollutants and any- one who could afford it paid for water trucked in from the country- side. The milk was so contaminated that newspapers accused the dairies of murder. The cows' meager diet of "swill" residue from the city's distilleries, caused the milk to appear a sickly blue that had to be hidden by artificial coloring. It was then delivered unrefrigerated to local neighborhoods in the same wagons that trucked out cow manure.1

The bread wasn't much better. Health reformer Sylvester Graham accused commercial bakers of increasing their profits by adding "chalk, pipe clay and plaster of Paris" to their bread to cover up impurities and to make it heavier and whiter.

New York was by no means unique. At every location and every time in history, people have gotten sick from what they ate. Poor food preservation techniques, inadequate understanding of sanitation, and contaminants in the food supply caused serious illnesses such as cholera and typhoid fever. Even today, 2 million people die each year in developing countries from diarrheal disease, primarily transmitted through food and water.3

Most people throughout history have had diets lacking key nutrients. Before the American Revolution, many of the colonists ate an unvarying diet consisting almost exclusively of bread and meat. For most of the year, they ate few, if any, fruits or vegetables. Even today, many poor people around the world subsist primarily on a single food such as rice. From the lack of vitamins and other essentials, they frequently become sick or blind or even die.

So, viewed through the long lens of history, the modern American food system is a marvel of productivity, cleanliness, and safety. For a visitor from an earlier generation, or from many developing countries today, an American supermarket, with its endless aisles of food choices, including fresh fruits and vegetables stacked high year-round, would be a technological wonder as impressive as computers, video cameras, and cell phones.

This abundance has had real health benefits. People grow taller and live longer than ever before, at least in part because they have more plentiful and better food. We know so much more about nutrition than earlier generations, and our food even comes with informative ingredient lists and nutrition labels. We also use more sophisticated methods to prepare and preserve food safely. Farmers and food processors have raised their standards of sanitation. Government regulators take consumer safety more seriously.

Perhaps most impressive of all, it takes remarkably few people to provide us with all this food. In 1900, more than 2 out of 5 Americans lived on farms, since that was the only way in which society could produce sufficient food. Today, only 1 out of each 40 American workers works in agriculture; and because of their remarkable productivity, the rest of us are free to pursue other occupations and live away from the land.


Unfortunately, at the same time that we have increased the variety, quantity, and overall safety of our food, we have created new and serious problems that threaten our well-being. Here are three reasons why we should be concerned.

1. Changes to the Food System Have Generated Troubling New Safety Problems

In a quest for greater productivity and lower costs, farms have changed dramatically since World War II. Farmers now produce much of our food on large commercial farming tracts that grow one or just a few crops. The widespread adoption of a single-crop system, the so-called monoculture, was only possible with the use of chemical agents to increase yields and annihilate pests. Farmers began applying large quantities of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The amount of pesticides used annually has now grown to well over 1 billion pounds of active ingredients, 10 times more than in 1945.

Many farmers feel they have little choice but to rely on pesticides once they switch to monoculture. In a farming system in which different crops are grown in rotation, many pests, like potato beetles and corn borers, have difficulty gaining a toehold since they thrive on only one type of plant. But once farmers start growing the same crop in the same field year after year, pesticides become necessary to prevent these pests from flourishing.

While pesticides have allowed farmers to at least partially control pests, they have introduced a new hazard into our lives. Farmworkers and others in farm communities have suffered from pesticide poisoning because of direct contact with the chemicals. The rest of the public has ingested pesticide residues on the food they eat. Lakes, rivers, and groundwater have been polluted. As we will see in chapter 4, pesticides have many harmful effects.

Other changes to the food system have introduced other new hazards. In animal agriculture, large food companies and farmers have constructed massive facilities, some with tens of thousands of pigs or hundreds of thousands of chickens. On such factory-style farms, animals spend their entire lives confined indoors. Many routinely receive antibiotics in their feed, not only to improve growth, but to ward off disease in the crowded, dirty conditions. This practice threatens the continued effectiveness of important antiobiotic medicines for humans. And in the crowded, stressful conditions of the large animal farms, disease can spread more quickly, in some cases to humans. Once a problem like salmonella in chickens becomes established on a factory farm, it is extremely difficult to root out.

Modern food-processing practices compound the problem of foodborne illness. For example, not that long ago, local butchers and grocery stores still ground beef on site and packaged it for their customers. If an animal had an infection, the problem was serious but contained. But now, the meat of dozens of cows gets mixed together in a central processing facility. If just one of those animals is diseased, it can infect an entire batch of meat going to thousands of consumers in multiple locations.

Food now also increasingly travels to us from around the world. Trade in food commodities is nothing new—nineteenth-century New Englanders ate wheat from Ohio and molasses from the West Indies and drank tea from India—but these days a much smaller share of the average person's food is produced locally. Increased reliance on imported fruits and vegetables injects new safety risks into the mix, since consumers can't be certain of the conditions under which their food was produced.

If you are like most Americans, you eat a significant share of your meals outside your home. While some restaurants utilize state-of-the-art food safety protocols, others can't even keep their rest rooms clean. The workforce in America's fast-growing food-service industry includes many of the nation's lowest-paid, youngest, and least-educated workers. Due to a lack of proper equipment or training, necessary safety precautions are not always followed. When a cook at home fails to wash food surfaces properly, perhaps three, four, or five household members are affected. But when an individual in a restaurant or another commercial food service facility does the same thing, hundreds of people can end up ill.

All of these changes over the past 60 years represent serious causes for concern. Moreover, because of global trade in food and the increasing globalization of disease, there is always the threat that a new foodborne illness will spread from one part of the world to the rest, much as AIDS did in the realm of sexually transmitted disease.

Food-safety problems can crop up in unpredictable, seemingly random ways, heightening public concern. Neither smelling, looking at, or even tasting your food will tell you if it is tainted. You can't see the pesticide residues on your fruit or the pathogens in your meat. Because most people have little contact with farms, the entire food production process seems mysterious and baffling, much more so than for previous generations.

Paul Slovic and other social scientists who study Americans' attitudes toward risk have concluded that people are much more willing to accept risks that they understand and feel they have some control over. Most Americans realize that high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar diets cause many more deaths and more sickness than pesticides or bacterial contamination of food, but these diet choices are subject to greater individual control. With modern nutrition labels, consumers can frequently identity foods with too much fat or sugar, but they can't tell when they are ingesting invisible microorganisms or chemicals that will harm them.4

2. Changes to the Food System over the Past 60 Years Have Caused Widespread, Permanent Environmental Damage

The same trends that have introduced new food-safety concerns have damaged the environment, sometimes in irreversible ways. Pesticides harm beneficial insects and other animals. They also pollute water supplies. Large-scale animal farms are another leading cause of water pollution. Moreover, modern industrial-style monoculture agriculture uses extravagant amounts of freshwater, depleting a valuable resource. Topsoil, another valuable natural resource, washes or blows off fields, in part because the farming methods emphasized in the past 60 years haven't made the preservation of topsoil a priority.5

In addition, after World War II farmers began spreading large quantities of chemical nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers on their fields in order to increase yields. Along with improved plant varieties and increased irrigation, the fertilizers worked well at raising the productivity of farmers' fields. Back in 1940, wheat farmers produced only 15 bushels per acre, but now the yields are nearly three times that much.6 In more traditional farming, because manure and careful crop rotations add nitrogen back into the soil, all those chemical fertilizers aren't necessary. Our heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers adds large quantities of nitrogen to rivers, lakes, and oceans, where it's doing considerable harm to plants and fish.

Before rejecting modern agricultural methods, we need to acknowledge that they have given us abundant food at low economic costs. Americans spend only about 10 percent of their income on food, a remarkably low amount by historical standards. The cost of food has gone up much less than that of many other products over the past several generations. However, we pay for some of the costs of food not at the grocery store or restaurant but through our taxes, when we have to clean up the environment, and through health insurance premiums that cover illness from drinking polluted water or poisoned fish.

Just as humans have wreaked environmental havoc on land, we've done so at sea. In the last few generations, we've developed technologies and fishing practices that have allowed us to ever more ruthlessly and efficiently extract seafood from the oceans. In many places, the fish can't breed fast enough to replace all the ones we're catching and killing, so fish populations are declining. At the same time, the fishing industry has introduced methods that damage the ocean bottom and other aspects of the marine environment. Even fish farming can have serious adverse side effects.

In the quest to produce food cheaply, the food industry has developed technologies and food production strategies that can harm the environment on a scale much greater than ever before. It's not surprising that many people worry about the potential environmental impacts of the next big technological breakthrough, genetically engineered foods.

3. It Has Become Harder to Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

Weight gain has reached epidemic proportions, putting many people at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, the percentage of adults who are overweight increased from 25 percent to 35 percent from the 1970s to the 1990s, while the obesity rate among children ages 6 to 11 jumped from 8 percent to 14 percent.7 Those disturbing trends have continued since then.

On top of that, many Americans are consuming diets that are low in beneficial foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and are overloaded with those ingredients—fats, sugar, salt—most likely to cause health problems. That is happening even as the average American's knowledge of nutrition has increased and helpful information, especially via nutrition labels on foods, has become more available.

Most Americans would like to eat healthful foods and be physically fit, but it has become harder and harder to do that. Fewer people have jobs that include extensive physical activity, so exercise needs to be incorporated into our leisure hours. But with so many competing pressures on our time, it's hard to fit in adequate exercise. Reliance on cars and the growing popularity of sedentary pastimes only exacerbate the problem.

Almost every hour of the day we receive messages to eat more. Supermarkets have been scientifically designed and carefully arranged to tempt us to increase our food purchases. Elsewhere, we are surrounded by advertisements, billboards, vending machines, and food displays. The food industry bombards us with $25 billion worth of advertising and promotions, such as coupons, gift giveaways, and samples. In contrast, the National Cancer Institute spends only $1.4 million annually to promote a healthful diet through the "5 a Day" program.8

The industries that produce the foods that are worst for us—including snacks, fast foods, sugar beverages, and meat—have especially increased their promotional efforts. Between 1988 and 1999, the number of dollars spent for soft drink advertising rose by 28 percent, for candy and snacks by 40 percent, and for restaurants by 86 percent.9 Food companies have placed snack products in many new venues to tempt us. We can't walk into a gas station or a pharmacy, or go through a supermarket or a hardware store checkout, without being surrounded by candy bars and potato chips. Vending machines with snack foods and soft drinks accost us in hotel hallways, at highway rest areas, and on subway platforms. As a Coca-Cola executive boasted, to "build pervasiveness of our products, we're putting ice-cold Coca-Cola classic and our other brands within reach, wherever you look: at the supermarket, the video store, the soccer field, the gas station—everywhere."

Our schools have unconsciously started to train our children in bad nutrition. Soft drink and snack machines have invaded school hallways, and advertising has entered the classroom through educational television ventures like Channel One news.

With our mobile, on-the-go lifestyles, Americans are more frequently eating away from home. On average, we now consume one-third of our calories outside the home.11 But it can be hard to find healthy food choices at restaurants, fast-food franchises, and take-out stands, which mostly feature high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods. We are much less likely to eat fruits and healthy vegetables there. For example, we eat more than one-third of our meat and more than two-thirds of our french fries away from home, but less than 10 percent of our fruit.12 In addition, large food portions and appeals to order appetizers and desserts encourage us to overeat.

These days, it takes careful planning and great willpower to eat a healthy diet. It's not surprising that many people fall short. So, despite our knowledge and desire to be healthy, we Americans increasingly risk disease because of what we eat.


How should we address these serious problems with the food system? It clearly wouldn't make to try sense to return to an earlier era. Very few of us would find that agreeable. Reducing farm productivity would create scarcity and swell the ranks of the hungry and malnourished.

Few people would be willing to renounce all modern prepared and packaged foods, thereby committing themselves to cooking almost all meals from scratch. Nor would most people be happy if they had to restrict themselves to foods grown in their own locality and region. Those of us in the Northeast or the Midwest would have to give up oranges from Florida, broccoli from California, and bananas from Central America, not to mention more exotic fare like noodles from Japan, olives from Greece, and pineapples from Hawaii. But without taking such radical steps, there is still a lot we can do to ensure our food is good for us and for the environment.

We can appreciate what's good about contemporary food while at the same time encouraging changes in the food system. We can have what's good about it while dramatically reducing the risks to our health and to the environment from current food practices. We can continue to enjoy the variety and convenience that so many appreciate. Farms can continue to be highly productive. Food can remain relatively inexpensive (although perhaps not quite as cheap if we invest more in food safety and environmental protection). Perhaps most important, our food could be much safer and healthier for us while also being at least as tasty and as enjoyable to eat. We can have a food system that provides safer, more nutritious food and improves the environment.

Your individual actions can make a big difference—not only to protect your own health, but to help point the entire food system in the right direction. Your choices and your role are what the rest of this book is about.

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Meet the Author

Warren Leon is executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and coauthor of The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.

Caroline Smith DeWaal is director of the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The publisher of Nutrition Action Healthletter, CSPI has been working for a healthier, safer food supply since 1971.

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