Should We Fear Our Food?

From the WebMD Archives

By Richard Laliberte

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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.")

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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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The cattle industry says there's no firm link between antibiotics in animals and resistant germs in people, but many scientists aren't reassured. "It's hard to trace the impact of antibiotics in the U.S., because we don't require animal producers to tell how much or which drugs they use," says Mellon. In Denmark, however, where bacteria in live animals and food products are rigorously monitored, a recent study traced an outbreak of drugresistant salmonella that killed two people to a herd of pigs carrying the same drugresistant strain.

Should You Worry?

Most drug resistance in germs you might face comes from overuse of antibiotics in people, not animals. But the U.S. government takes the threat seriously — enough so that it established the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, which regularly tests bacteria from animals, people, and retail meats for signs of resistance to 17 common drugs. So far, there's no evidence that drug resistance is spreading from food to people. "But it's theoretically possible," says Craig Baumrucker, Ph.D., a professor of animal nutrition and physiology at Penn State University. Fortunately, cooking meat to the right temperature kills germs no matter what. (For information on how to safely store and cook food, go to fightbac.org.)

Genetically Engineered Corn

Most of us routinely — and unknowingly — eat foods containing at least some plant ingredients whose DNA was modified in order to help the plant grow heartier and prettier. In fact, about a dozen types of genetically modified crops have been approved for market since 1995, but the technology is mostly used on soy, cotton, and corn — which makes the corn syrup that goes into processed foods, as well as cornstarch, flour, and baking powder. Between corn, soy, and other foodstuffs, as much as 70 percent of the processed food in your supermarket could contain at least one ingredient that's been genetically modified.

The Potential Danger

Inserting new genes into a plant's code causes specific changes in proteins that typically allow the crop to survive adversity, such as a dousing of weed killer or a swarm of attacking caterpillars. While genetic engineering seems vaguely creepy to the average layperson, some scientists raise specific concerns — their biggest worry being that genetic tinkering could cause new food allergies, which occur when the immune system overreacts to proteins. Researchers have long known that putting genes from an allergenic plant into a nonallergenic one can result in an allergenic plant for those who are sensitive. Now, a 2005 Australian study finds that even a gene exchange between two nonallergenic plants can create a plant that triggers an immune response in animals. "It's a jump to say an immune response in lab mice translates to allergies in people," says Mellon. "But the research certainly raises that possibility."

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Biotech defenders say there's no cause for concern. To date, not one confirmed food safety incident related to bioengineered food has occurred anywhere in the world, says Michael Phillips, Ph.D., vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group that promotes the industry. In fact, he says, research now under way will more likely make natural allergies to foods a thing of the past — by engineering known problem proteins out of plants.

Should You Worry?

The argument that bioengineered food raises allergy risks is plausible, but even critics concede there's no evidence of a real threat. Still, they argue that the government isn't looking hard enough for problems. FDA officials say they thoroughly review industry data and evaluate potential allergy risks before food products are marketed. Says Laura Tarantino, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety: "We rely on the best science available, and I'm confident that foods made with genetically modified crops are safe."

Viruses in Cold Cuts

In 2006, the FDA gave the green light to spraying foods like deli meats and hot dogs with bacteriakilling viruses to protect against listeria, bacteria that affect some 2,500 people a year, a third of them pregnant women, and kill as many as 500 people a year. The viruses — known as bacteriophages, or phages — would glom on to highly targeted strains of listeria that could infest meats after they've been cooked and destroy them before you open the package.

The Potential Danger

This technology is so new — it's several years from hitting shelves — that advocacy groups haven't weighed in, and they may not, as the process seems to be safe. "In Russia, phages have long been used instead of antibiotics," says Randall Huffman, Ph.D., vice president of scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute Foundation in Washington, D.C. Still, there's an "ick" factor in deliberately coating food with viruses, and some bloggers have speculated that phages could cause illness.

Should You Worry?

The question isn't whether bacteriophage treatment is safe, but whether it's palatable to consumers. Because phages would be considered a food additive, their use would be strictly regulated, and treated products would be labeled. "Bacteriophages are harmful only to the specific bacteria that nature designed them to kill," says Huffman. "But it'll take a lot to convince industry and consumers that they're a feasible food technology."

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Hormones in Milk

Many dairy farmers inject their cows with rbST (also called rbGH), a genetically engineered replica of bovine growth hormone (BGH), which the animals also produce naturally, to control milk production. Treatment typically boosts cows' milk output by up to 15 percent, and about one third of U.S. dairy cows are now injected with rbST. But because milk from different farms is mixed together in tanker trucks, it's reasonable to assume that almost every carton of milk contains some BGHtreated product, unless it's labeled organic rbST or rbGHfree.

The Potential Danger

Ever since the FDA approved rbST in 1993, there have been allegations that drinking the milk from treated cows increases human health risks ranging from breast cancer to reproductive abnormalities. With these concerns in mind, the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch has pressured Starbucks to switch to hormonefree milk, with positive results. But hundreds of studies over the years have settled most of those issues. "AntiBGH activists have lost every round of scientific, peerreviewed research," says Phillips.

Most recently, however, a study published in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine found that women who drank milk were three times more likely than vegans to have twins. One theory: Insulinlike growth factor (IGF), a protein produced by all mammals that has been linked with twinning in cows, is having the same effect in women. "When animals receive BGH replica, their IGF levels go up," says study author Gary Steinman, M.D., an obstetrician at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY. He suspects that elevated levels of IGF from hormonetreated cows are passed to people in milk. No research offers slamdunk proof that rbST milk makes women have more twins. But twinning rates in U.S. women are higher since rbST was introduced, Steinman says, and use of assisted reproductive technologies doesn't fully account for the increase. "The rate has gone up twice as fast here in the U.S. as in Britain, where there's been a moratorium on synthetic BGH," he says.

Should You Worry?

It's unlikely that rbST or IGF in milk has anything to do with your odds of having twins, according to Baumrucker. In fact, IGF from food can't be absorbed directly by the body, he says. What can happen is that other proteins in milk boost the body's production of its own IGF. But even if milk protein indirectly raises IGF, Baumrucker adds, the elevation would be well within the normal range.

Steinman admits he hasn't connected the dots between IGF in milk from BGH cows and twins. And if a connection does exist, you would only need to be concerned about it if you're trying to get pregnant and don't want twins, in which case he suggests switching to soy or organic milk as a precaution.

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Carbon Monoxide in Meat

Consumers expect red meat to be red — not some unappetizing brown color. Problem is, even when refrigerated, meat starts to turn brown the minute it comes into contact with oxygen in a chemical reaction called oxidation. The meat industry's solution: Inject a mix of gases containing nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide into tightly sealed packages of beef, lamb, and pork. This "modified atmosphere" doesn't include "free" oxygen, so it won't trigger oxidation and keeps meat red and freshlooking until the package is opened.

The Potential Danger

"Consumers use color as a cue to freshness, and this process takes that information away from us," says Barbara Kowalcyk, director of food safety at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention. "Such treated meat could be left out in the sun on some loading dock during shipping, and nothing about its appearance would tell consumers it wasn't as fresh as it should be."

But in fact, modified atmosphere actually preserves freshness, counters Huffman. When oxygen is removed, the product lasts longer, because oxidation is what causes meat to become rancid. A far better guide to freshness is the sellby or useby date found on packages, says Huffman.

Should You Worry?

Wrapping meat with gases offers at least one safety advantage: Packaging is done at one centralized location instead of in your grocer's backroom butcher shop, so meat is handled less, reducing potential exposure to harmful bacteria. What's more, there's nothing inherently unsafe about the gas itself. The problem is that consumers can't tell for sure when the mix has been used because that information isn't on the label. (One clue: Treated packages typically use deep trays with space between the meat and the plastic film, which is stretched drumtight.)

But Kowalcyk insists it's still a righttoknow issue: "At the very least, labeling should indicate which meats have been treated." In a 2004 review, the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service agreed that if meat goes bad, carbon monoxide could mask spoilage. Yet the FDA, which has the last word, continues to give the process its blessing.

The bottom line? While there's a theoretical risk, and product labeling would be a good idea, in practice it's unlikely that meat in modified atmosphere is unsafe. "Packaged meat is one of the most important items in the grocery store, and retailers are very attuned to quality," says Huffman. "More than 200 million of these packages have been sold with virtually no problems."

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Irradiated Food

It sounds like something out of Star Trek : Make food safe by killing germs with an invisible ray. But there's nothing fictional behind the science of irradiation, a technology in which prepackaged food is exposed to gamma rays from radioactive substances, shot with electrons from an electron gun, or zapped with Xrays. The highenergy beams or rays kill most, if not all, dangerous microorganisms such as E. coli by breaking apart molecular bonds in their DNA.

The Potential Danger

Though most food scientists point to a 50year research history showing irradiation to be safe, some activist groups claim that the process changes food flavor, destroys nutrients, and forms compounds called unique radiolytic products that may raise the risk of cancer.

Should You Worry?

Dozens of scientific organizations around the world have concluded that irradiation is safe. "There's no scientific basis for concern," says Anna Resurreccion, Ph.D., a professor of food science and technology at the University of Georgia, Griffin. Knocking electrons around in food does form unique radiolytic products, she says, but the low doses of irradiation needed to kill germs aren't powerful enough to produce harmful levels of the compounds. As for taste, "There's absolutely no difference," says Resurreccion. "The only difference is that irradiated food is safer. Why are people dying from eating contaminated spinach when technology is available to reduce or eliminate the problem?"

In the wake of recent E. coli outbreaks, consumer organizations are taking a fresh look at irradiation. But you may not find irradiated food on grocery shelves. Says Foreman: "It must carry a label showing it's irradiated," [a flowerlike image surrounded by a broken circle] "and many people won't buy it." Which just goes to show that it's smart to educate yourself fully about technology's impact on food, so that unsubstantiated fears won't turn you away from healthy choices.

Irradiated Food

It sounds like something out of Star Trek : Make food safe by killing germs with an invisible ray. But there's nothing fictional behind the science of irradiation, a technology in which prepackaged food is exposed to gamma rays from radioactive substances, shot with electrons from an electron gun, or zapped with Xrays. The highenergy beams or rays kill most, if not all, dangerous microorganisms such as E. coli by breaking apart molecular bonds in their DNA.

Continued

The Potential Danger

Though most food scientists point to a 50year research history showing irradiation to be safe, some activist groups claim that the process changes food flavor, destroys nutrients, and forms compounds called unique radiolytic products that may raise the risk of cancer.

Should You Worry?

Dozens of scientific organizations around the world have concluded that irradiation is safe. "There's no scientific basis for concern," says Anna Resurreccion, Ph.D., a professor of food science and technology at the University of Georgia, Griffin. Knocking electrons around in food does form unique radiolytic products, she says, but the low doses of irradiation needed to kill germs aren't powerful enough to produce harmful levels of the compounds. As for taste, "There's absolutely no difference," says Resurreccion. "The only difference is that irradiated food is safer. Why are people dying from eating contaminated spinach when technology is available to reduce or eliminate the problem?"

In the wake of recent E. coli outbreaks, consumer organizations are taking a fresh look at irradiation. But you may not find irradiated food on grocery shelves. Says Foreman: "It must carry a label showing it's irradiated," [a flowerlike image surrounded by a broken circle] "and many people won't buy it." Which just goes to show that it's smart to educate yourself fully about technology's impact on food, so that unsubstantiated fears won't turn you away from healthy choices.

A Year of Sustainable Eating

Tired of living on food that traveled hundreds to thousands of miles — and guzzled gallons of gas along the way — to reach their home in Arizona, awardwinning author Barbara Kingsolver, her husband, Steven L. Hopp, and their two daughters, Camille, 20, and Lily, 10, decided to embark on an experiment. When they moved to their farm in the Appalachian Mountains to be near family, they also made another change: For one year they followed a local/sustainable diet, eating only what they grew themselves or bought from area farms, markets, and food makers — no fast food, no excuses. Their new memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, details how this family learned to think globally and eat locally.

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Q: What inspired this experiment?

A: We were pushed into it by our discomfort with so many things about the industrial food system — the additives, the environmental costs of agribusiness, the loss of small farming. At the same time, we felt the pull of a simpler, healthier approach to our mealtimes — we loved eating from our garden and the farmers' market, and we began to wonder whether we could walk away from the big industrial food pipeline altogether.

Q: What were the hardest foods to give up?

A: Ironically, what we missed most was a very healthy item: fresh fruit. We can get local apples in the fall, but no other fruits ripen until strawberries in May. We sometimes looked longingly at those Chilean grapes in the grocery, but we also considered how much fuel gets burned pushing these fruits around the globe.

Q: In learning about agriculture, what lesson surprised you most?

A: Did you know that standard white turkeys sold in the U.S. have been bred so successfully for factory farm conditions that they can't even mate without human intervention? This seemed wrong to me.

Q: Now that the experiment is over, how has your life changed?

A: We had so much fun and ate so well, I forgot to notice the day the experiment ended. By then we had a completely new way of looking at food: Is it in season now? Get it, enjoy it, then move on. We still organize our meals around our garden and the greenmarket. Sometimes I'll see Alaskan wildcaught salmon and realize, Oh, I could buy that now. And occasionally I do — as a splurge. It's indulgent to consume something that was flown here on ice from 5,000 miles away. Globally speaking, we should think of longdistance foods as akin to our husbands bringing us roses: Okay, smile, be joyful! But don't expect it every day.

How to Eat as Nature Intended

Largescale food technology is almost impossible to avoid — unless you shop the oldfashioned way: from an actual farmer. "Food that's raised and sold locally doesn't have to be engineered to grow fast or ship well," according to Guillermo Payet, founder of LocalHarvest, an organization based in Santa Cruz, CA, that promotes community agriculture. As a result, less technology and manipulation is needed to extend shelf life or supply megasupermarkets, and that can help make food safer. Fortunately, buying local isn't difficult — whether you live in the suburbs or in a big city — with these five simple steps.

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Shop Farmers' Markets

Most communities have public spaces where groups of farmers sell their products on designated days. To find a farmers' market in your area, go to localharvest.org and type in your zip code.

Buy in Season

Produce in your grocery store is less likely to have come from a long distance if it's in season and can be obtained from farms in the region. Visit sustainabletable.org to learn what's in season when in your state, and ask your store's manager to specially label local produce.

Participate in CSA

That's Community Supported Agriculture — a subscription service in which you pay an upfront fee to a farmer and get a weekly basket of fresh crops. Food is often dropped at a convenient location for pickup, and some farms deliver to your door. Find a CSA operation in your area at localharvest.org.

Drive to the Country

Many farmers operate roadside stands or pickyourown produce services. Either way, you can ask first how the food is grown.

Buy Organic

Certified organic foods must meet USDA standards — including no use of bioengineering, growth hormones, antibiotics, or irradiation.


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