A safe food supply Food poisonings up: E. coli, other organisms pose danger to health, lives.

September 15, 1997

HUMAN BEINGS may think they rule the world, but lesser links in the food chain seem determined to strike back. With scares from tainted meet, fruit, vegetables and even unpasteurized juice, Americans are learning that a safe food supply is not something that can be taken for granted, though the United States has long enjoyed far better protections than most other countries.

According to the World Health Organization, food-borne diseases may be 300 to 350 times more prevalent than the reported cases indicate. Food poisoning poses a far greater danger to people in developing countries than in more affluent parts of the world -- for instance, as many as 3 million children in poor countries die each year from intestinal diseases.

The suffering and loss of lives caused by tainted food is compounded by the economic consequences, especially in a world where falling trade barriers allow food products to travel further and faster. When Peru faced an outbreak of cholera in 1991, the country's seafood industry lost more than $700 million in exports in the first three months after the outbreak. Another $70 million in losses resulted from a decline in tourism and the closure of food service establishments.

In the United States, a recent recall of ground beef raised fears about the safety of poultry and meat. But this part of the food supply is more tightly regulated than most, and even stricter standards are due to go into effect in January. Ironically, despite increasing fears of tainted food, meat producers are reluctant to employ the most effective weapon against unfriendly microbes -- irradiation, which eliminates bacteria with levels of radiation too low to pose a danger.

The technique has been extensively studied and deemed safe by the WHO and other international agencies; the Food and Drug Administration has already approved the procedure for many food items. But regardless of proof of its safety, some activist groups continue to oppose it, thus discouraging the use of one of the most promising tools available for keeping the food supply safe.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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