Published on: 11:29AM Jun 04, 2009
Recently, the New York Times asked a startling question: “Is it becoming more dangerous to eat?”
Let me offer an unequivocal answer: No.
Never in human history has it been safer to eat food than today. We know more about how to grow healthy food. We also know more about how to keep it safe as it travels from farm to fork. And as we continue to learn, we’re constantly improving the whole process.
Yet there’s no sense in denying that the question of food safety has been on the public’s mind. We've all read and some of us have 'lived' the recent headlines about peanut butter, jalapeno peppers, and spinach. As we enter picnic season--a time when Americans are prone to leaving their food exposed for long stretches--we will continue to hear about these concerns.
Consumers should know that farmers are committed to producing healthy and nutritious food. The safety of what I grow is the first thing on my mind each day. My livelihood depends on it. So does my family: After all, they eat what I grow.
Here’s one way of looking at it: Farmers worry about food safety so that you don’t have to.
So why does tainted food continue to make news? There are two simple explanations. The first is that the media thrives on shocking stories. You’ve probably heard the old nightly-news chestnut: If it bleeds, it leads. Maybe we should consider a corollary for food poisoning: If it’s foul, then growl.
The point is that instances of food contamination reliably generate frightening headlines and righteous denunciations. The reasons often have as much to do with the media’s desire for high ratings as they do with the accuracy of a story. Remember the recent fuss about “swine flu”? It caused a sensation in part because the media misnamed it: Health officials had to take to the airwaves to correct this semantic blunder and assure nervous consumers that they couldn’t contract the disease from eating ham sandwiches or pork chops. Today, responsible commentators refer to the illness by its scientific name, the H1N1 flu.
The second reason we hear about tainted food is because there are actual cases of it. We can deplore them as unacceptable, but we should also consider a paradoxical fact: They are success stories of effective regulation.
Our public-health officials are very good at identifying problems and containing them. If they weren’t, we would never hear about food contamination. It would just happen. People would become sick for no obvious reason. Doctors and nurses would shrug their shoulders. Think of that common diagnosis: “Could be anything.” Life would go on as before. Nobody would connect the dots.
With our current regulations, however, concrete information can spread quickly when breakouts begin to occur. This enables producers and consumers to take appropriate steps to safeguard the food supply.
Although we’ll never have a completely failsafe system, we’re getting better at protecting ourselves all the time. About a dozen years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention improved its data collection of food-borne illnesses. The results are impressive: a 25-percent decrease in E. coli ailments. Other bacterial infections are down by about a third.
The advent of biotechnology has been a big help, too. GM crops are better able to fend off pests that introduce disease. In the near future, we’ll hear more about biofortification--the genetic enhancement of staple crops to improve their nutritional content. The National Academy of Sciences recently reported on successful efforts to boost the amount of vitamins in transgenic corn. These advances will promote health through the food chain, especially in developing countries where proper nutrition is a constant challenge.
We will strive to discover effective and appropriate ways to improve the safety of our food supply even further. Lawmakers must proceed with caution and remain sensitive to unintended consequences. It isn’t hard to imagine increasingly elaborate levels of regulatory scrutiny. Yet big budgets and burgeoning bureaucracies don’t automatically guarantee worthwhile results. They often create new inefficiencies and burden consumers with additional costs.
In the meantime, eat without fear. Your food is safe.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org