How many times have we been told we have the safest food supply in the world? Do we really?

I suppose it depends on the comparison. Somalia? Kenya ? Eritrea? In developing countries, close to two million children die every year from contaminated food and water. These countries don’t have much of a food supply, safe or otherwise, so compared to them, we do quite well.

How do we fare compared to other industrialized countries? The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions estimates that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness yearly in the U.S. — roughly 1 out of every 4 people. Foodborne illness strikes the U.K. at a rate of roughly 1 in 10 and Australia around 3.7 per 100. Clearly, our food is not as safe as we are led to believe, and as for it’s being the safest in the world … maybe not.

Most foodborne illness is caused by bacterial contamination: E. coli, Salmonella, and the like. In recent years, however, we are seeing new more virulent forms of these bacterial contaminants that can make food poisoning potentially lethal. Bacteria are also developing resistance to antibiotics, in part as a result of overuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry.

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E. coli 0157:H7 showed up in the 1990s in undercooked hamburger and now kills upwards of 60 people yearly in the U.S. E. coli 0157:H7 thrives in the stomach of cattle fed high-grain diets, a standard practice in large commercial feedlots. Meat becomes contaminated when it comes in contact with manure, an all-too-common occurrence in huge processing plants where overworked, underpaid workers are expected to process too many animals in too little time. USDA budget cuts have left too few inspectors to adequately monitor those plants.

Spinach contaminated with 0157:H7, probably from irrigation water that flowed too close to large cattle lots, caused a real problem, since spinach is often eaten raw. Again, the contamination is a direct result of industrial farming practices

Melamine is extracted from coal with heat and chemicals and has been illegally used in China as an additive to raise the protein-test scores in human and animal food. This new food contaminant adds no nutritional value; in fact, it’s a toxin that can cause illness and death. In China it was responsible for sickening over 90,000 infants, and in a globalized food economy, melamine has gone worldwide in Chinese dairy products, eggs, and many processed foods.

It could just be a coincidence, but on the same day that Congress passed a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street (money we will no doubt have to borrow from China), the FDA set a tolerance level of 2.5 parts per million for melamine in food. Tolerance level! Should we tolerate any?

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While we expect domestically produced foods to meet certain safety requirements, foreign producers and processors are not bound by those requirements, and imported food enters our food chain every day. Poorly regulated domestic processing plants value profit over food safety and hope to place the burden of contaminated food on the consumer, hiding behind the “Safe Handling Statement” on the package.

So why, other than the obvious, are issues of food safety, industrial farming, and a globalized food supply so critical now? Simple: In a few months, a new president will be inaugurated and a new administration will hopefully change Washington. New agency appointees at FDA and USDA could reform our food system.

It is not difficult to produce safe food; it is not difficult to keep the food safe through processing; it is not difficult for farmers, workers, and consumers to share the benefits of a local food system. What is difficult is expecting safe food from a system run by profit-oriented corporations and overseen by bureaucrats who are part of that same corporate food system.

Both candidates called for change, so let’s see it.

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