Threat to food supply rising

Pathogens: Potential dangers to food increase as the world's population grows, travels more and relies on industrial-size farms.

Medicine & Science

March 22, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The plentiful supply of meat and year-round produce that enhances our tables these days comes with a price tag: More widely traveled foods are spreading deadly infections.

Green onions from Mexico killed three patrons of a Pennsylvania restaurant and sickened more than 600 in the fall. Mad cow test standards were tightened last week, months after a Washington state Holstein was infected with the disease, traced to a Canadian herd.

A strain of avian flu discovered this month in Maryland - while no threat to humans - endangers the state's multimillion-dollar poultry industry. A deadlier strain has killed 23 people in Asia.

"I think what we're seeing is an unprecedented vulnerability of the safety of our food supply," said Dr. Robert Lawrence, a professor of preventive medicine at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The potential threat to our food increases as the world's population grows, travels more, harvests more of the world's forests and relies increasingly on crops supplied by industrial-size farms, experts say.

"By now, you should be relatively scared," Andrew P. Dobson, a Princeton University biologist, told scientists last week at the American Institute of Biological Sciences' annual conference in Washington.

Dobson noted that the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease that infected British cattle in 2001 - effectively shutting down that nation's beef industry - started when one farmer fed leftover airline food to his cattle. The disease spread because the British government was slow to react, he said.

"It's a scary example for agriculture," Dobson said.

Experts say the threat is a direct result of our own appetites. "It's very much related to what the American consumer is looking for, the desire for seasonal fruit and vegetables year-round," said Dr. David W.K. Acheson, director of food safety and security for the Food and Drug Administration.

In an attempt to monitor the flood of imports, the FDA has hired 600 inspectors and plans to require 420,000 food importers to register and notify the agency before shipping food into the United States.

New regulations

Under the new regulations, importers must give two hours' notice for goods moved by truck, four hours' notice for rail shipments and eight hours for ships coming into ports.

The notification requirements, which became effective in December, are intended to make it easier for FDA inspectors to identify incoming foodstuffs that might be suspicious. FDA's proposed budget calls for conducting 97,000 import inspections next year, a 60 percent increase over the current year.

But food safety advocates say the FDA and other government agencies are too understaffed to adequately inspect the 25,000 shipments of imported food that arrive each day.

Those imports have increased sharply since the North American Free Trade Agreement widened trade with Mexico and Canada - from $26 billion in 1994 to $46 billion last year. The value of imported vegetables has more than doubled since 1994, to a record $6.2 billion in 2003, according to federal agriculture reports.

"You have more food being imported across our borders, and our ability to inspect and enforce what's on the books is being taxed tremendously. I don't think we could even create a surveillance system to detect all of the potential problems," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on the health and environmental effects of food production.

The FDA's Acheson said there is no way to guarantee an end to mad cow, avian flu, hepatitis A or any other agriculture-based pathogen. But he said the nation's food supply is safe and the upgraded inspection system should address concerns about threats from imports.

"Food-borne diseases are nothing new. It's not like we're having rampant outbreaks of things we've never seen before," he said. "I can't say we'll never have another incident. But we're doing everything we can to prevent them from happening."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 25 percent of Americans are sickened by food each year. Although cases of mad cow disease and avian flu grab headlines, produce still poses the biggest health threat when it comes to food-related illnesses.

A survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, another nonprofit watchdog group, found that contaminated produce was responsible for more sickness than any other food source in 2002.

Reports to the CDC between 1990 and 2002 indicate there were 2,472 outbreaks of produce-borne illness, accounting for 18,084 cases. Multi-ingredient foods, such as pizza, ranked second, causing 330 outbreaks and 11,500 illnesses.

Exactly how many of those cases were caused by imported food remains unclear.

But experts say many food-borne illnesses are the result of improper cooking. Ground beef has been a cause of food-borne disease for 20 years, with E. coli bacteria killing an average of about 60 people in the United States annually.

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