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Food Safety: Something to Chew On

Common Food Poisoning Culprits continued...

Some common diseases also can be foodborne, even though they usually are transmitted other ways. These include infections caused by the bacteria Shigella -- the virus that causes hepatitis A -- and the organisms Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidia. Even cases of strep throat have been transmitted through food, according to the CDC.

During 1999, the CDC's Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, or FoodNet for short, identified almost 11,000 confirmed cases of just nine diseases under surveillance. Among those were more than 4,500 cases of salmonellosis, nearly 3,800 cases of campylobacteriosis, and 530 E. coli O157 infections.

FoodNet is the principal foodborne disease component of CDC's Emerging Infections Program and is a collaborative project of the CDC, the United States Department of Agriculture, the FDA, and nine state Emerging Infection Programs -- California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee.

New Technology Breeds New Concerns

But food bugs aren't the only food safety concerns. Advances in biotechnology have triggered new worries about food safety. Most prominent is the introduction of genetically engineered food, sometimes called "frankenfoods."

Frankenfoods are produced using modern genetic techniques that allow manufacturers and growers to modify the product's genetic material in ways not possible with traditional selective breeding. For example, researchers can transfer genetic material from one species to another, such as from animals to plants. The intent is to make the product grow better, faster, or bigger. A variety of genetically engineered plants are now under development, and some crops have reached the marketplace.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a major concern with modifying foods via genetic engineering is that they may cause some individuals to become allergic to foods they previously weren't allergic to. Food allergies affect an estimated 2.5 to 5 million Americans -- a serious, and sometimes life-threatening, public health concern.

In January, the FDA issued a proposed rule requiring makers of genetically engineered foods to notify the agency at least 120 days before the food is marketed. The agency also intends to list more information about each frankenfood it evaluates at a special Internet site -- http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/biotechm.html.

The Bottom Line

Although there is much that consumers, governments, and public health agencies can do to protect the food supply, foodborne illness is most often the unintended consequence of normal human activity and industry.

Schaffner provides the following illuminating example: Apples grown in an apple orchard are picked from a tree, but the ones that fall on the ground are used to make cider. If the apples fall in a field where cattle also defecate, the cider can be contaminated if it is not properly pasteurized.

So ultimately, public health officials view foodborne illness as something that will never be totally eradicated; at best, it can only be minimized.

"In public health, we don't talk about a safe food supply, but about reducing the risk and making the food safer," Schaffner tells WebMD. "We will never achieve perfect safety. We do have the safest food supply in the world, but it requires constant attention by the government, industry, and consumers."

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