Food and environmental safety

What is actually safe to eat?

A couple of weeks ago, it seemed that in every class I was hearing about a new foodborne illness outbreak. Every teacher warned me of a different exposure route, but the majority of them were with contaminated seafood.  If you look towards the news, you would see that every couple months over the past few years there has been a new outbreak. A website known as “Food Safety News” is constantly posting new stories pertaining to foodborne illness outbreaks.

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Formaldehyde Found in Seafood (Source: Food Safety News)

If you look at the majority of these stories on the “Food Safety News” website, you can see a pattern. Almost every foodborne illness story is related to the importation of specific foods or spices from other countries. This made me wonder who has control over inspecting and ensuring the safety of our imported foods. I found that the Food and Drug Administration was given the authority to ensure the safety of our food by the U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This act states “importers of food products intended for introduction into U.S. interstate commerce are responsible for ensuring that the products are safe, sanitary, and labeled according to U.S. requirements. (All imported food is considered to be interstate commerce.)”

The FDA’s website goes on further to say, “FDA is not authorized under the law to approve, certify, license, or otherwise sanction individual food importers, products, labels, or shipments. Importers can import foods into the United States without prior sanction by FDA, as long as the facilities that produce, store, or otherwise handle the products are registered with FDA, and prior notice of incoming shipments is provided to FDA.

Imported food products are subject to FDA inspection when offered for import at U.S. ports of entry. FDA may detain shipments of products offered for import if the shipments are found not to be in compliance with U.S. requirements. Both imported and domestically-produced foods must meet the same legal requirements in the United States.”

Further investigation into the FDA shows that there are many different programs and fail safes in place to ensure the quality of the food being imported, but still things slip past. It is impossible for the FDA and the port authority to search and test every shipment that enters the U.S., which makes it very difficult to ensure the quality of food that U.S. citizens are accustomed to.

A recent article by NPR,  “Fish and Spices top list of imported foods that make us sick”  tells of a different cause to the spread of foodborne illnesses. This article says, “Since the late 1990s the amount of food that’s imported has doubled and the number of outbreaks has mirrored that”. It goes on to explain that it is not the food coming in, but the quantities in which they are being consumed. Approximately 15% of all food on U.S. tables is imported from other countries, which makes it very difficult for the FDA to inspect all of it. In turn a new act was implemented in 2011, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which focuses on preventing contamination instead of responding to it. This is a completely new approach at tackling the problem of foodborne illness.

As consumers in the U.S. market do you feel safer with all these new regulations and programs? Do you believe it is advantageous to think foodborne illness is mainly caused by consumer practices? ( e.g. food preparation safety) What foods won’t you eat after hearing about how they have caused food borne illness? After hearing about so many different food borne illnesses, do you think you will change your eating habits? If not, why? Do you think the FDA should try a new approach at ensuring our safety or are they current doing all they can?

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11 thoughts on “What is actually safe to eat?

  1. pfc1344 says:

    By doing a little research, I found out that the FSMA addresses five main areas to ensure food safety. They include preventative controls, inspection and compliance, imported food safety, response, and enhanced partnerships. Preventative controls shift the approach to food safety by trying to prevent them instead of responding to them. Inspection and compliance will modify inspection strategies, and imported food safety will require US importers to ensure the suppliers meet the standards. Response gives the FDA the authority to issue mandatory recalls for food products, and enhanced partnerships strengthen the relationships among food safety agencies (1). These areas make it seem like the food that we import and consume will be safer, but this act’s success will depend on how they implement it. Only time will tell how effective this act actually is. However, I do think this a good start in the right direction.

    I have never experienced a foodborne illness (that I know of…knock on wood), so I have never really been extremely concerned about the safety of my food. I know some food safety comes down to how the consumer prepares the food- not storing it properly, not cooking it long enough or to a hot enough temperature to kill whatever is in it. I read the news regularly, and I’m usually aware of outbreaks and food recalls. If it is related to any of the food I eat regularly, I tend to read on and make sure that I do not be concerned. If it did (which it never has), I would not eat it. It’s a simple as that. However, I do not plan on changing my eating habits because of food outbreaks. I try to make sure I know where my food comes from and that I store and prepare it properly, but I’m not going to completely quit eating something because it has caused outbreaks in the past.

  2. pfc1344 says:

    Follow Up: Here’s the link I was supposed to post in my previous comment!

    (1)http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/ucm247559.htm

  3. It is bizarre to me that the FDA has regulations in place for imported foods, yet there are still so many food borne illness outbreaks. This leads me to believe that the FDA is not doing the job it is claiming to do or their regulatory standards are too lax. The FDA is a very well-known and highly trusted US agency, so I doubt that the problems stems from a lack of regulation. As you mentioned in your post, the FDA has recognized that foodborne illnesses are an increasing issue. They have addressed this issue with the FSMA. Why is there still claim to an increasing trend in foodborne illness outbreaks if actions are being taken to prevent these outbreaks? You mentioned the possibility that this issue could be the result of improper food preparation. If the quality of imported foods were similar to those of domestic foods, we would see similar outbreaks in both imported and domestic. This isn’t the case though, so we can only assume the quality of food being imported is of much lower quality. Thus, shouldn’t we take more precautionary measures to regulate these foods in order to prevent the possibility of foodborne illnesses regardless of consumer food prep? It seems to me that imported foods just need to be subjected to stricter regulations.
    On the other hand, these increases in foodborne illness outbreaks could just be the result of technological advancement. According to the CDC, “The CDC 2011 estimates of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths from foodborne diseases in the United States are more accurate than those published in 1999. The methodology used for the 2011 estimates is different from that used in 1999. Over the past decade, investments have provided better data sources and methods, and Scallan et al. have used more sophisticated methods to model for uncertainty. These differences mean there is no strict side-by-side comparison that can be made between the two sets of estimates.” So is there necessarily a drastic increase in the number of food borne illness outbreaks, or are we just better at recording and detecting them?
    Regardless of the reason for this supposed increase in outbreaks, I feel safer knowing that new regulations and programs are being implemented. It is better to be overly cautious than to write these increases off as changes in methodology. I think it is naïve to blame foodborne illness on consumer practices. In some cases, this might be appropriate. Once again though, it would be silly to write these outbreaks off as improper practice of food safety. I don’t know that I’ve heard about a bad enough outbreak that has deterred my eating habits. If anything, the outbreaks have made me more aware of proper food practices (proper heating, proper storage, washing, etc.) to kill possible germs. I think the FDA is still trying to figure out what they can do given their jurisdiction. Stricter regulations have seemed necessary for a few years now, but I think that lag time is the result of the policy process.

    Source: http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/differences-in-estimates.html

  4. klschwartz says:

    Last semester I took a class called Birds of Our Lives where we talked about importing birds. This relates to what you said about shipments not necessarily being thoroughly checked. My professor said that many people put legal substances in the top of the shipment boxes and then put the illegal birds underneath to sneak them into the country. He also said that there are not a lot of port authorities checking the incoming shipments in comparison to the number of shipments entering the country. This means that, more than likely, a ton of shipments go unchecked and potential hazards can enter the country. If people can illegally ship live birds in the U.S., I feel like it would be even easier to do with food.
    I think that the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, FSMA, is an extremely important act if it can help prevent the amount of food borne illnesses within the United States. By trying to prevent the problem before it happens there is a better chance that less people will become sick. I think this regulation will make the citizens that are aware of the problems associated with food borne illnesses feel safer about what they eat, but I also think that most citizens are unaware of the problem. I believe that a lot of food borne illness stems from improper preparation. In high school, I took a cooking class where my teacher taught us the proper way to cook food. This meant not using a wooden cutting board for meat, never using the same utensils on different types of food, keeping meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from other foods, ect. According to Washington State University, if food is “cooked to 160°F, E. coli O157 and other pathogens are killed”. This means that if people are properly education on how to prepare and cook their food the risk of obtaining a food borne illness decreases.
    After hearing about food borne illnesses I do not think I will change my eating habits, simply because I have never gotten food poisoning. Unfortunately this is probably not the right approach to take, but I like to believe in the saying “if it is not broken, don’t fix it”. I know how to cook and prepare food and I buy all of my food from well-known stores like Kroger or Publix. This leads me to believe that the only way I would obtain a food borne illness would be from a restaurant. This does scare me because one never knows what happens in the kitchen of a restaurant, but at the same time one cannot live their life in fear. In the end my viewpoint on food borne illnesses and the FDA has not changed, but I do believe that the FSMA is an important act that will continue to decrease the amount of food borne illness for people who are unaware of the proper way to prepare and cook food.

    http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/basics/cook/
    http://www.foodsafety.wsu.edu/consumers/faq3.htm

  5. The safety of food is one of those issues that really slips my mind and one that I never think about. When I think about food bore illnesses, I think about it only in developing countries that struggle with not only food illnesses but also water borne illnesses. Thus, I have just always assumed that food in the grocery stores are safe. However, after learning that the FDA does not always have that authority to inspect, I am a little scared now. Another major fact I was shocked to learn is how much food the United States imports, nearly 15% of all of our food! I always thought the United States was known for exporting food and that mainly just seafood was imported.

    I think it would be good if one agency or administration would take charge of making sure food was safe when it is imported. Furthermore, I think the FDA should definitely be given more power to inspect food that is imported. To be honest, though, I don’t think I will change my eating habits. Most of the outbreaks are from seafood, and I eat some seafood, but not a large amount of it. Plus, it is one of those things where you can get sick from anything you eat if it was not handled correctly. Therefore, you could drive yourself crazy worrying about if you were going to get sick.

  6. I really didn’t know much about how our food is regulated, but I have always been taught to watch where you get your fish. I feel like with these new regulations and programs things have the potential to be safer and better regulated, but it takes time and willingness of the respected agency to take initiative to actively inspect the food coming into our country. I don’t think that those who unfortunately get a foodborne illness are completely in the fault of the consumer. I do believe that there is some fault on their end if improper preparation is taken by the consumer, but we need to start by investigating the food when it first enters the country. I hope that the FDA will take a better initiative to make sure all the food we consume is safe, considering that is the reason why the administration is there for. My eating habits will not change as much after hearing this, just because I already take the time to find where the meats I eat come from, and try to make sure my fruits and vegetables are locally grown.

  7. dnlo10 says:

    I never really think about food safety until cases show up in the news about contaminated foods causing illness or even death. It is a very important issue but it is one of those topics that is kind of out of sight, out of mind. I do believe that the FDA does all that it can to keep the contaminated foods out of the country but like you said in your post, they cant catch everything. I also feel that the majority of these illnesses that happen are the consumers fault for not preparing their food correctly. A big problem, is the poor preparation of meat, specifically not cooking them long enough. I do not think that my food habits will change after reading this because I believe that I take the necessary precautions to not have to worry very much about these illnesses. I always cook my meats thoroughly and the fruits and vegetables that I eat are almost always grown locally. I do hope that in the long run, we will be able to prevent the contaminated foods from entering the country and being consumed but I think it is never going to be able to be fully possible unless the FDA does infact check every item that enters the country. It is for that reason, I think that everyone should take the necessary precautions themselves to ensure that they will not ome into contact with contaminated foods.

  8. kvsims says:

    FSMA was implemented in 2011 and Americans are still constantly getting sick off imported food. So, no I don’t feel safer with the regulations. I don’t believe that food borne illnesses are mainly caused by consumer practices. I think that is a very easy way for companies and even agencies to push the blame onto the people who are getting sick. My diet is primarily organic with very little amounts of meat. Therefore, I do not think my diet will change much. However, in recent years when I do eat “fast-food”, I choose healthier restaurants because I feel the cheap fast food is most likely imported. After learning that the majority of seafood in America is imported from China and that when the FDA inspects these ships, the seafood is almost always rejected – I don’t think the FDA is doing all that they can. However, because of politics and economic factors, the FDA will probably continue to operate in a similar manner as always.

  9. There’s a reality that any meat that you eat has a chance of being contaminated, ESPECIALLY if you do not cook it properly and fully. Seafood, in particular, is interesting because, when I think of seafood and illness, I tend to think about sushi. It would not surprise me at all if most of the seafood illnesses occurred after sushi consumption. And with the decommissioning of Fukushima in Japan, there are some concern for seafood from the pacific . One could also consider marine pollution issues as another indicator of concern for seafood harvesting.
    After I heard the Algix speaker in senior design tell us that the fish raised in China were pretty much raised in wastewater and were mutating, I have decided firmly against making sure I don’t get any fish from China. But otherwise, there’s an inherent risk in anything that you eat, because you really cannot predict what could happen to your food. However, I do like that the FDA can now focus on helping companies prevent contamination instead of just pointing them out when it does happen. After reading a bit about the FSMA , I really liked that now the companies can be held more accountable because they have to have essentially a contamination prevention plan. Now requiring supplier verification helps me relax a little more as far as importing is concerned. Overall, I probably won’t change my eating habits until I’m financially able to do so, but I would support more local endeavors for all foods if I could.

  10. shreyasvangala says:

    My biggest health concerns with regard to food regulation do not stem from the threat of short term foodborne illness caused by an encounter with a parasite, but rather that which is the result of bio accumulation of toxins and heavy metals. Health issues caused by mercury have been a huge reason for me to cut down on my consumption of a number of types of fish, which is unfortunately one of my favorite foods, and an otherwise excellent source of protein and unsaturated fats. It does scare me to know that the FDA has so little authority where foreign food importers are concerned, and such a lack of regulation makes me think that foreign source of food may be cheaper, thus leading Americans to rely more and more on foreign food sources. For such reasons, I am a major proponent of the idea of eating locally as often as I can. It is extraordinarily difficult to sift through massive shipping containers for something that often times cant be seen without a microscope. Pathogens go right along with the number of other larger floral and faunal invasive species we see coming into the US so often. The environmental costs of shipping and consequently trucking foodstuffs to the proper location are heavy in terms of carbon emissions and refrigeration costs, but this also creates a scenario where transportation and supply chains rely on pesticides and synthetic preservatives. In addition, when outbreaks do arise, such a centralized food system allows for illness to be spread across a larger geographic region. Also, as someone who uses a lot of spices that come directly from India, I will really start to rethink the sources from which I acquire the spices that I consume. Often times, they are brought to our home by visiting family members and other times they are sold in specialty Indian grocery stores and are processed in India.

  11. kevin1254 says:

    As a consumer, seeing improvements through proactive efforts by the FDA does make me feel better. I am a little on the fence with subject. On one hand, I feel very paranoid and nervous about the foods my family and I eat. I wonder about bacteria, viruses, preservatives, etc. I have become more curious and even more concerned about what we ingest. On the other hand, I wonder if there is anything we can really do about it. Eating all ‘organic’ does not necessarily eliminate the health concern. We don’t always know what organic really means. We also are constantly exposed to many exogenous substances. Some things sound worse than others while some could actually be very bad. With this being said, I have not yet come to a consensus on how I feel about this topic.

    I think a lot of dangers can be reduced or eliminated by consumer cooking and handling practices, but there are certainly some ‘things’ that can enter our body regardless of how we handle our food. Currently, I will not eat fish from China after our discussion about it in class. I am particularly picky with fish to begin with.

    Generally, I believe that the harder FDA works to ensure our safety, the safer we’ll be. Also, if FDA ramps up their inspection routines, then they will likely have to hire many more people to handle the workload. That is an economic advantage that cannot be overstated.

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