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Experts Slice and Dice Food Safety Issues

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"Radiation scares people because it's complicated and invisible, regardless of what the facts are," says David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston.

"The facts seem to support that radiating foods is safe [and] will improve public health," says Ropeik, whose center receives funding from the food industry and the U.S. government.

While the Consumer Federation doesn't oppose irradiation, Foreman says, it is expensive, and she worries that it could be used as a substitute for proper processing of meat.

Rather than promoting greater use of irradiation, Foreman says her group would like to expand government inspections of products after processing.

However, the food industry totally opposes that idea, she notes.

On the other side of the fence, the food processors says a current government proposal to eliminate listeriabacteria, which often proves fatal to humans, goes too far. New requirements would cover canned foods, Willard notes, even though such products have traditionally proven quite safe.

"Are you just doing it because it sounds good, or is this truly going to be effective?" he asks.

What kinds of food safety regulating are we likely to see from the Bush administration?

Earlier this month, the White House made a rapid about-face from an initial decision to kill Clinton administration rules requiring salmonella testing of meat served through the federal school lunch program.

According to Foreman, in the months ahead the interests of many GOP voters who care strongly about food-safety issues will face a tough political fight with industry interests "who gave campaign contributions to Bush and want to drive a truck through all of these regulations."

Meanwhile, anxiety abounds about a whole new breed of foods -- the kind with genetically altered ingredients.

Some worry over a host of possible health impacts from the modified foods and point out that the government is now testing people who have claimed an allergic reaction to genetically modified corn. A major mixup last year -- the use of unapproved biotech corn in the manufacture of some Taco Bell taco shells -- introduced genetically modified StarLink animal feed corn into the human food supply.

"While new risks certainly bear attention, the risks with which we're familiar -- food poisoning -- still demand the most attention," says Ropeik.

"There's certainly no evidence that any of the biotech food on the market today is dangerous to human health," says Foreman says, but there is the possibility that allergic reactions may emerge.

"I think that's one of most overplayed fears I've heard," counters Lineback.

Regardless of possible health effects, good or ill, should genetically modified foods be labeled as such? What about foods that claim to be free of genetic alterations?

"We would like to see guidance that allows companies to make truthful and non-misleading claims one way or the other," Willard says. "We think that's the bottom line here."

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