“From farm to plate, make food safe”

Today is World Health Day and this year the World Health Organization is calling for safe food from farm to plate.

More so today than ever before, food safety is an international issue. Walk into your grocery store and you’ll find kiwi and lamb from New Zealand, seafood from Asia, avocados and vegetables from Mexico, bell peppers from Holland, coffee from South America, and chocolate from Europe or even Africa. Long gone are the days when all of your food was grown within your community. (However, in some places across the US, we’re seeing a resurgence of this concept, fueled by a strong, environmentally-conscious, and expanding local food movement.)

I think about food safety in two ways. The first, the more common way, relates to food contamination resulting in bacterial or viral infection. Many will remember the 2010 salmonella outbreak linked to contaminated eggs, which infected thousands in the US. So-called bird flu, or H5N2, which drew worldwide attention a number of years ago because of it’s potential to spur a global pandemic, is back in the news as the 7th Minnesota turkey farm confirmed its presence.

A few points on foodborne illness outbreaks in the US. According to CDC summarized in a recent report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

  • the number of outbreaks have only declined slightly since 1998;
  • the majority of outbreaks aren’t solved (only ~30% are);
  • more outbreaks stem from multi-ingredient food products than any other food; and
  • almost half of all outbreaks come from restaurants or other food establishments.

foodborne illness outbreaks_CDC

foods linked to outbreaks outbreak by location

But food safety is as much about long-term health as short-term health. This second area of food safety, in my opinion, receives a bit less attention. Why? Research related to the long-term health implications of consuming potentially harmful foods is difficult to conduct. The divisive debate about genetically-modified (GM) foods is a prime example, and concerns about GM foods are growing as the FDA grants more approvals (potatoes and apples in the most recent case). Evidence mounts linking GM foods with poor health outcomes. This 2009 review put it this way,

“The results of most studies with GM foods indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters.”

Many other studies show no harmful effects from consuming GM foods. These studies, however, have a relatively short time horizon, and aren’t indicative of “long-term.” For example, OECD guidelines only require a 90-day feeding study in rodents to determine if GM foods are safe.

Two points on this. One, many will agree that 90 days is pretty short and hardly indicative of what health issues may result over a long period of time (i.e. years or decades). Second, though rodents are helpful models to test nutrition science questions, they aren’t humans. And as we’ve seen in nutrition research related to fat, results often differ dramatically between rodent and human models.

But regardless of where you fall in the debate about GM food, I think there is one thing many agree on: we want transparency in our food supply. More consumers are concerned about where their food comes from, how it was produced, and the ingredients it contains. And this might be the most important assurance for food safety.

Public accountability and consumer preferences are the ultimate benchmark for business. As consumers, we have the power to influence the food system. A generation of millennials who are concerned about healthier food options have forced big food companies like General Mills to rethink its product lines. This same pressure and pocketbook advocacy from consumers can be applied to any aspect of the food system.

As consumers, we hold more power than we think. Our choices can influence the future of our food system, how safe it is, and the type of food it produces, and where the food goes.

Choose wisely.

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