FOR MOST of the past century, Americans have rarely had to worry about the safety of their food. With reasonable precautions -- proper refrigeration, taking care to wash and cook food properly, and the like -- Americans have been largely justified in -- viewing food as a source of sustenance, not a cause of sickness. Health threats from food have come more from overindulging or from poor choices, such as too many high-fat dishes.
But in recent years, amid other pressures, the federal government has become complacent about its duty to protect the food supply. One example can be seen in staffing levels for the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which in 1978 had some 12,000 inspectors. By the beginning of 1997, that number had fallen to 7,500. Food imports, including fruits and vegetables, offer another troubling scenario. While imports have doubled in the past decade, inspections of imported food by the Food and Drug Administration have decreased by more than half.