Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Food & Recipes

Font Size

Should We Fear Our Food?


WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Richard Laliberte

Redbook Magazine Logo

Industrial farming techniques may make it easier to find out-of-season fruit, but what are we giving up in exchange?

Once upon a time, farms were pastoral places close to nature, and the ability to obtain healthy, safe food was a given. In our high-tech agribusiness world, though, the innocence of food is vanishing fast. Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness have shown that simple plants like lettuce and spinach can harbor deadly germs. And the use of antibiotics and hormones in animal products also raises weird-science fears.

"Consumers expect food to be safe," says Ted Labuza, Ph.D., a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. "But agriculture has become a huge industry that makes heavy use of technology in order to be more efficient, which can lead to unintended consequences." The simple benefit of gigantic industrial farms: cheap, good, readily available food. The consequences? Not so simple.

Take bagged salads. Fifteen years ago, they didn't exist. Today, thanks to new breathable wrapping, some 70 percent of head lettuce is bagged, and prepackaged greens are top-selling food items. Convenience is part of the appeal, plus pre-washed greens sound safer. Yet almost all U.S. lettuce comes from just a handful of large processors, which creates new problems if you have even a few contaminated heads. "Those heads are chopped up and distributed in many packages throughout the country within days," says Labuza. Which is how contaminated spinach from just one mega-producer in California sickened hundreds of people in 26 states last fall, causing nationwide panic and profoundly impacting the spinach industry.

Buying organic isn't the easy answer, either, as "natural" farming has evolved from a small-scale boutique business into a $14.6 billion industry. "Organic isn't automatically wholesome — a lot of large organic farms are just as industrial as other farms," says Guillermo Payet, founder of LocalHarvest, a clearinghouse for small growers. Organic means the food is grown without conventional pesticides, antibiotics, or fertilizers — it doesn't mean that Farmer Bob is lovingly tending your apples on a small farm. (The buzzword for that kind of farming, which emphasizes the long-term health of the environment and the local community, is "sustainable.")

The good news is that even as our fears are spiraling upward, our food is safer than ever, with E. coli infections — one of the most common food-borne diseases in the United States — down by 29 percent in the past decade, according to 2005 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Government and industry are working to make food production cleaner and to identify disease outbreaks faster.

Still, it's tough to trust that food safety is increasing when the bad news keeps breaking: Recent recalls of contaminated peanut butter (salmonella) and mushrooms ( E. coli ) continue to fuel our anxiety that we're buying tainted food that could make us sick. Even technologies that have no history of causing illness can make us nervous simply because they seem unnatural. "Food raises emotional issues that are important to us but sometimes have nothing to do with actual safety," says Carol Tucker Foreman, of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. "That's why we have a right to get enough information to decide for ourselves whether we want to eat something — even if it's safe."

To help you draw the line between panic and prudence, REDBOOK investigated six food technologies that have recently made headlines or raised consumer anxiety over the years. Here, what you need to know.

Today on WebMD

Four spoons with mustards
What condiments are made of and how much to use.
salmon and spinach
How to get what you need.
 
grilled veggies
Easy ideas for dinner tonight.
Greek Salad
Health benefits, what you can eat and more.
 

WebMD Recipe Finder

Browse our collection of healthy, delicious recipes, from WebMD and Eating Well magazine.



bread
Recipes
soup
Recipes
 
roasted chicken
Recipes
grilled steak
Video
 

Loaded with tips to help you avoid food allergy triggers.

Loading ...

Sending your email...

This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.

Thanks!

Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

vegetarian sandwich
Recipes
fresh vegetables
Recipes
 
smoothie
fitArticle
Foods To Boost Mens Heath Slideshow
Slideshow