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Experts Slice and Dice Food Safety Issues


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April 16, 2001 (Washington) -- You are what you eat, right? But do you really have any idea what it is you're eating -- where it came from, what it's been exposed to, and if it can make you sick?

This week, food industry and government officials participating in a food-safety summit are asking those same questions, but don't expect any easy answers anytime soon. While all participants acknowledge that the safety of what we eat and foodborne sicknesses are critical issues, few agree completely on the best way to protect consumers.

"If you look at the factors of safety, availability, quality, and cost, there is no other nation in the world that can equal our system, " says David Lineback, PhD, director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, a partnership of the FDA and the University of Maryland.

Still, as good as the U.S. system is, 76 million Americans suffer foodborne illnesses each year, as reported this month by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Annually, those illnesses lead to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths -- and in about 60% of those cases, doctors can't pinpoint exactly what caused the problem.

"The real problems, the ones that make people sick and kill 5,000 of us each year, are from contaminated meat that gets out of the processing plants," says Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

When meat isn't adequately cooked, or when raw meat comes into contact with vegetables or other foods that are eaten uncooked, nasty bugs such as salmonellaor E. coli can wreak havoc.

Last July, for example, a young girl died from E. coli bacteria she was exposed to at a Sizzler restaurant in Milwaukee. She hadn't eaten any meat, but she ate watermelon that had been contaminated inadvertently with juices from bacteria-tainted beef.

Who's to blame -- restaurant workers, food processors, someone else? Are such illnesses and deaths avoidable, or are human errors inevitable?

Tim Willard, a spokesman for the National Food Processors Association, tells WebMD that blame for the Milwaukee girl's doesn't rest with the meat processors.

"This was clearly a situation where there was cross-contamination in a retail setting," he says. "You cannot look at food safety just in one area. It needs to extend the entire length of the food chain."

But Foreman sees it another way.

"The watermelon didn't bring the E. coli in," he tells WebMD. "And the food workers didn't bring it in. It came in on a piece of contaminated meat."

To lessen the chances of exposure to diseased food, some propose more widespread use of irradiation, a high-tech process that zaps meat clean of practically all nasty bacteria after it's being processed. But many consumers are leery of eating food that's been exposed to radiation.

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