With the recent listeria outbreak that was traced back to tainted cantaloupe – that has resulted in 29 deaths to date – American consumers are again being reassured that everything possible is being done to protect the public from these potentially deadly foodborne illnesses. But how honest is this claim?
To hear the U.S. Department of Agriculture tell it, you’d believe that men in sterile white suits examined every speck of food that is produced in the U.S. prior to allowing it to be consumed, but logic tells us this is impossible. So how is it that the USDA makes such reassurances?
Food Safety FAIL
Whether it’s listeria, E coli, Salmonella, or any of the other foodborne illnesses that we’ve grown to dread, it’s clear the USDA isn’t doing everything they can—and should—in order to keep U.S. food safety standards up to par with the rest of the world. While most countries will recall raw poultry meat if Salmonella is detected, the “USDA accepts – indeed expects – to find Salmonella in a significant fraction of raw poultry samples.” This has resulted in two outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in this year alone!
Instead of making stringent demands of food producers, the USDA uses a flawed method to test poultry carcasses. “In essence, USDA has dumbed down its Salmonella test, reducing the sensitivity of the test to less than 10% of what it should be.” With these watered-down results, it’s a fair assessment to say that all the money being spent on testing is essentially being wasted, and people are continuing to become ill at a staggering pace.
Organic ≠ Better
Due to the hype over organic food, many mistakenly believe that food grown in this fashion is inherently safer to consume. While it is true that organic farmers avoid chemical toxins, irradiation, and that the food isn’t genetically modified, this doesn’t mean the USDA is any more stringent with these food growers than they are with those who use more conventional growing methods.
There is still a possibility these foods will be tainted with various bacteria. In fact, it could be argued that the USDA organic certification—which only ensures that the soil in which the produce was grown was free of chemical exposure for at least three years, free of any chemical or genetically engineered ingredients, can’t be irradiated, and must not have been raised or produced with any drugs or hormones—leaves consumers open to these illnesses, as they may make assumptions about the relative safety of the food they are buying because of the green certification tag.
No one is Immune
Some consumers mistakenly believe that restaurants are safe from foodborne illnesses, as professionals are preparing the meal. But before you go searching for restaurant coupons and make a reservation, be sure you have reasonable expectations for your chosen dining establishment. Restaurants generally get their meat and produce from the same growers as most grocery stores, and therefore their food went through the same (flawed) inspection. Just because someone has been formally trained to prepare a meal does not make the food immune to foodborne illnesses.
When it comes to food safety—or the lack thereof—the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the USDA. To date, it would seem as if they aren’t taking this responsibility seriously, but with increased awareness will come an inevitable improvement of standards. The question is not if, but how soon, and after how many more outbreaks of preventable illnesses? Take your role as a consumer seriously and demand more from the USDA. Your health will thank you for it.