The question of food safety is an interesting one in that most people believe it is an absolute need. Very few people are going to advocate for a measured response to contamination. 19 million pounds of fresh and frozen beef, 400,000 pounds of frozen, fully cooked chicken or 25,000 pounds of pork rinds is a lot of food–and contamination has occurred affecting each of these. Clearly, the government and companies are prepared to recall food in the event of a contamination.
What is the best way to regulate food markets for safety and preventing contamination? Some will advocate for a government with regulation and imposed standards to penalize offending businesses, and others will advocate for market freedom with sellers that are unsafe selected against by market forces. At this point, the question is overtly political based on preconceived notions. However, there are some general trends under this framework of food safety.
The question of safety is redefined as a question of conventional versus organic by some. Some advocate that specific practices of organic farmers are better at creating safer meat, for example. Practices critiqued are the crowded conditions, treatment with antibiotics, and slaughter in hot and dirty factory conditions. But if some are able to implement these “safer” practices while conventional meat is still available, then we will effectively create a two-tier system in which the rich can afford ‘organic’ and ‘safe’ while everyone else eats ‘conventional’ and ‘unsafe’ meat. If the whole system is replaced with organic, then we could effectively price out some segment of the population from having fair access to meat. That is not to say that organic advocates intentionally for some terrible, class-ist ideal; some of the ideas are good. Grass feeding does have many positive benefits to both the animal and the consumer: rates of harmful bacteria (like Campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7) in cows tend to be lower, and many believe that the flavor is better. More room for movement of animals tends to cause better muscle definition and animal quality of life. How do we want to reach the best possible end for food safety? Should society innovate and create industrial solutions, or should society question modern practices and return to previously effective methods? (And how effective were those methods?)
How do GMOs fit into this discussion? Are they safe? Are GMOs any different from non-GMO food? While many would like for there to be obvious differences between GMOs and non-GMO food, there is frequently no noticeable consumer difference.
What about another modern method for food safety, irradiated food, which is facing critiques? The process of irradiating food works by using high-energy electromagnetic radiation to disrupt standard DNA function. This causes bacterial and microorganism death while preserving the quality of the food going through the process. A common question is, “If it causes bacterial and microorganism death, why is the food safe to eat afterwards?” The answer is that exposing something to radiation does not make it radioactive. Food from the microwave (electromagnetic radiation!) is not radioactive, just as you are not radioactive after sun tanning, even though this also involves electromagnetic radiation. The bacteria and microorganisms that are now dead and on the food are safe to consume. The body already has all needed digestive enzymes to consume most foreign matter. The food that we eat that is not irradiated has both living and dead bacteria and microorganisms all over it. Food to be cooked in an oven, grilled, fried, etc. is covered in bacteria and microorganisms (at least, when it’s raw), but the vast majority do not affect us. Additionally, bacteria and other microorganisms cannot become resistant to irradiation as they can to an antibiotic. Some challenge that we should make the process so clean as to not even need irradiation, but that is perhaps beside the point: the process of irradiation provides no additional negative consequences.
With the question of food safety and safety in general, many people feel that they are the best arbiter for their own safety. As such, above is a guide to identifying different codes at grocery stores. Below is the label used to identify irritated foods. The best way to keep yourself and your family healthy is to be an informed consumer. This means understanding the science behind the production of the food you consumer and methods we use to keep our food safe for consumption.