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.
"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."
But the bottom line is elsewhere for Foreman and other consumer activists, who want to see extensive safety testing on modified foods before they're allowed to hit the market.