How Safe is Our Food???

I remember a few years ago there was salmonella found in Peter Pan peanut butter, the kind we ate at our house.  For the next few weeks we could not find that brand of peanut butter at Wegmans grocery store, so my mom had to begin buying other brands.  Other than this incident, I had never really paid attention to other health safety issues with foods since none of the recalls had ever affected me.  However after reading various articles for class, I have realized that food safety consists of more than just the occasional recall.

First of all, who is actually regulating the safety of our food?

People commonly assume that the FDA and USDA test all foods before they are sold to consumers.  However as the articles we read for class pointed out, the FDA and USDA are not always the ones testing the products.  One particularly disturbing article discussed a company called Beef Products Inc., which uses the high fat trimmings from beef to create a beef product incorporated into ground beef.  Because the product is so cheap, companies such as McDonalds and Burger King, as well as school lunch programs have been using it.  The scary thing is that officials at the USDA decided that the treatment used by the company  to destroy E. coli and salmonella in the beef product was so effective that the company was exempt from regular testing.  This was all occurring in 2007, as the USDA began departmental testing of all meat used in hamburgers being sold to the general public.  I personally think that this is ridiculous.  If they feel that it is necessary to test other meat from other companies, then why is it acceptable for Beef Products Inc. to be exempt from such testing?

Well…it’s not.  Especially since in 2008, the school lunch program using the beef product found that their meat was contaminated with salmonella (since the school lunch program is required to test their meat).  This meant that the method of decontamination used by Beef Product Inc. was not fully effective.  Even more disturbing was the actual method used to decontaminate the beef product.  The beef trimmings are injected with ammonia, which has been shown to kill both E. coli and salmonella.  As I read this article, I thought to myself…ammonia?  Who would ever think to eat that?  Imagine trying to make a hamburger with ground beef and having it smell like bleach…not really something I would want to eat.

After the contaminated beef was found in the school lunch program, the USDA mandated testing from BPI.  However rather than testing the products themselves, they allowed BPI to test their own products.  This actually appears to be a common practice: a company will test their own product for contaminants and report their results to the USDA or FDA.

And wait a minute…back to the school lunch program.  Guess who required mandatory testing with the school lunch program?  None other than the USDA: the same organization that also exempted Beef Products Inc. from testing.  The USDA found the salmonella in the BPI product.  Apparently, the USDA decided that the safety of school children is important (which is a good thing); however do they not care about the safety of the remaining general public?  I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely comfortable with this system.

So, does this mean that we have to choose between starving or getting sick from food consumption?  Of course not.  The regulations on food safety for the most part are efficient.  In July of 2009, The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 was passed by the House of Representatives.  Analytical testing is used frequently to test for various contaminants from bacteria to pesticides.  Methods such as gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, near-infrared spectroscopy, and high pressure chromatography are all used in the testing process.    These testing methods are all precise methods that are able to detect almost all the impurities and possible contaminants in the food products.

Conclusions: The Risk With Eating Food

With anything you do in life, there is going to be a risk.  Eating is no different. Even if you have a vegetable garden in your back yard and only eat from that garden, there is still a chance of your food being infected. It is costly and impractical to test every piece of food you consume, and probably impossible.  It is also impossible to standardize food testing due to the wide variety of foods that we consume.  You cannot test a burrito for contaminants using the same methods as you would use to test a peach.  With current federal regulations for food safety combined with new bills that most likely will be  passed in the near future, I think the risk of eating food is one I’m just going to have to take.

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