What an exciting class! We were fortunate to have Rebecca Goldberg, a lawyer for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), join us for class on April 12th. Ms. Goldberg spoke to us about food safety and how the FDA regulates policies regarding the safety and cleanliness of the things we ingest. (Note: The information Ms. Goldberg gave us does not represent the views of the FDA…)
Ms. Goldberg began our class discussion on food safety began with the following question:
“Who has the most responsibility for the safety of our food? Growers? Processors? Vendors? Government? Consumers?”
What first popped to my mind was that the growers had the most responsibility. After all, they are the ones who are implementing methodologies to get rid of potentially harmful bacteria in our foods. Our class came to the ultimate decision, however, that there really is no single answer to this question, and that all parties involved from “farm to fork” have some level of responsibility to make sure our food is safe.
We learned that government food agencies give special attention to food products such as meat and eggs because they are sold with the assumption that the consumer will cook it properly.
What does the government mean by cooking properly?
There is an official chart on the federally supported website www.foodsafety.gov that shows the temperature recommendations for the safe cooking of meat, fish, and eggs. These recommendations are just a tad extreme… In my opinion hamburgers cooked up to 160 °F would taste pretty bad and although I am not really a steak person, Professor Miller likes his steaks cooked to 125-130 °F (the government recommendation is 145 °F).
Why are these recommendations so strict?
One of the main culprits that we often hear about is Salmonella enteric serotype Enteritidis (or Salmonella for short). Salmonella is a toxic bacterium that is most commonly found in chickens (and thus eggs). The bacterium makes its way into eggs by first infecting hens’ ovaries. Although Salmonella doesn’t always make hens sick, the bacteria may diffuse into the egg white and then be enclosed by the shell. But… do not fear! If we refrigerate our eggs and cook them until the yolk and white are firm, we will not suffer the consequences of Salmonella poisoning. And, even if you are a fan of soft-boiled eggs, runny egg dishes, or a giant spoonful (or 3) of cookie dough, the chances of Salmonella poisoning are very, very slim.
For more information, visit http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/types/eggs/index.html
As for meat, bacteria are most commonly found on the surface of steaks, roasts, or chops, so a good searing in the frying pan should kill any unwanted bacteria hanging around. Ground meat, however, is a different story due to the large amount of surface area (in other words, all of the nooks and crannies that the bacteria can crawl into). If you’re worried about the bacteria, cook it thoroughly until it is uniformly brown. And if you’re really ambitious, cook a steak to your liking and grind away!
For more information, visit http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/types/meat/index.html
As consumers, what can we do to ensure that our produce is safe?
The FDA has many recommendations, which include:
- Buy bruise-free/damage-free fruits and vegetables
- Buy only pre-cut or bagged items that are kept cold in the store
- Check your fridge temperature- it should be at 40 °F or below
- Wash cutting boards and utensils between use of produce and raw meat
- Wash produce thoroughly and dry with a clean cloth or paper towel
“Wass-up” with HACCP? (pronounced hass-ip)
One aspect of food regulation Ms. Goldberg discussed was the HACCP system (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point). Here is how the FDA defines it:
HACCP is a management system in which food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.
Basically, food industries must analyze the production process and identify potential sites for bacterial contamination or undesirable temperature change. The processors must then institute methods to stop the potential hazard and monitor and test the process/products for harmful bacteria. Currently, the FDA requires HACCP plans for the seafood and juice industries, although many other food industries may initiate HACCP plans in the near future due to President Obama’s recent passing of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act on 1/4/11.
Ms. Goldberg also mentioned various ways in which the government enforces food safety:
- Warning letters sent to food companies
- Seizures take certain products off the market
- Injunctions (from a judge) temporarily shut down unclean/unsafe facilities
For an up-to-date list of all FDA and USDA recalls, visit: http://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls/recent/index.html
Where’s the SCIENCE in food safety regulation?!
Although the government agencies such as the FDA and USDA institute many preventative measures to protect our foods against unwanted bacterial contamination, there are also scientific means to eliminate harmful bacteria:
Irradiation is when food is hit with electromagnetic radiation (usually X-rays). The irradiation of packaged foods would kill unwanted bacteria and make our food much safer, but there are many objections to such practices. There is a misconception that irradiation makes food radioactive (it doesn’t!) and that it may create toxic chemicals in food. Marion Nestle in What to Eat challenges this thought, because, who’s to say that “these chemicals are any different from those caused by frying, baking, or any other cooking method, or whether they cause harm when you eat them?” (157). So next time you’re in the grocery store, check out some labels to see if the food has been irradiated!
Another method similar to irradiation is bombarding food with electron beams. This method is more controversial than irradiation because the electrons may break and rearrange the chemical bonds in food. Our Bonding with Food class came to the conclusion that the societal worries about irradiation come from its name: it sounds scary! If we do something as simple as changing the name of irradiation, our food could be much safer and illness could be prevented.
As a class, we would like to thank Ms. Rebecca Goldberg for making the trip up to Geneva and spending time with us!