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Should We Fear Our Food?

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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.

Antibiotics in Meat

You may take antibiotics only when you're sick, but poultry, cattle, and swine get low doses even when they're well to fend off infections common in factory farms and to promote growth. By some estimates, 70 percent of antibiotics produced in the United States are used for nontherapeutic purposes on largescale confinement farms.

The Potential Danger
"The drugs used on animals are the same ones we rely on at the doctor's office — penicillin, tetracycline," says Margaret Mellon, Ph.D., of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group in Washington, D.C. But those drugs are becoming less effective as bacteria develop resistance to them — and widespread use of antibiotics in animals may be making the problem worse. If resistant versions of deadly bacteria survive on animals and make it onto your plate, any infection you get could be harder to treat because antibiotics won't kill the germs.

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