Myths about food safety instill unwarranted fears
Source of Article: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/6141924.html
you're not eating at Upton Sinclair's table
By BEE WILSON
Copyright 2008 Houston
You made it through Thanksgiving
dinner. No one contracted campylobacter from the turkey or E. coli from the
creamed spinach. You even survived your mom's famous sweet potato casserole.
But now you're eyeing the leftover stuffing in your fridge, feeling vaguely
anxious. Is it safe to eat? Is anything safe to eat anymore? It can be so
hard to keep up in this world of endless food scares. One minute we're
alarmed by salmonella in jalapenos. Now it's melamine in milk from China. What
Endless fear of food isn't healthy. During the same period in the 1980s
and '90s when the American health establishment was pushing a fear of fat
(specifically anything delicious such as butter), the nation got fatter. When
all food seems scary, a kind of apathy sets in. We fail to distinguish real
frights from bogus ones. And we forget about a little thing called pleasure.
Our food hysteria has spawned numerous myths, most of which take us
farther and farther away from the simple pleasures of a good meal.
• The American food supply has never been so dangerous.
This is the least safe time in history for eating, right? Wrong. If you find
it terrifying feeding your family now, try imagining yourself in Washington or New
York from the 1850s to the 1900s. You try to buy
vinegar; you are sold sulfuric acid. Your peas come greened with copper,
giving you a dose of heavy metal poisoning with every bite. Spices are bulked
with breadcrumbs or sawdust. Children's candies are colored with poisonous
lead. Canned goods are laced with copper, tin and toxic preservatives. You
buy "fresh country milk" to feed your baby, only to be sold
disgusting swill milk from cows kept in stables attached to distilleries and
fed on the alcoholic "mash" left over from liquor production. To
disguise its thin bluish appearance, swindlers have thickened it with plaster
of Paris and colored it yellow with molasses. There's a good chance your baby
will die from drinking it, as a reported 8,000 infants in New York City did in 1857.
Or what about meat? If you think industrial meat production is scary today
(and you're not wrong) you could at least be grateful that you're not living
in the part of Chicago
known as Packingtown in the early 1900s. Sausages
contaminated with rat dung, spoiled hams disguised with chemicals and
"potted chicken" that was really rotten pork were just a few of the
scandals exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel, The Jungle.
OK, our food supply isn't perfect (there are still Twinkies). But it has
been much worse.
• Packaged food is safer. When we feel scared, we want to put our faith in
something. Lots of people put their faith in food that comes in packets. Some
part of us knows that a SnackWells cookie isn't as
healthy as a fresh carrot, but at least it can't be tampered with. Right?
Maybe it's nostalgia for reading the back of the cereal box as a child, but
we feel oddly reassured by labels. Look! It's fortified with thiamine; it
must be doing me some good.
In fact, packaged food is potentially less safe than unpackaged food. It
passes through many hands before it reaches the consumer, increasing the odds
that it has been tampered with at some point along the way. Labels are only
reassuring when they tell the truth. Plenty of packaged food is mislabeled —
as is the case with the formula scandal in China, which has affected
• People who buy organic food don't have to worry.
Curb the smugness. Not all "organic" food is created alike. Organic
beef is not necessarily from grass-fed cows. Organic apples may still contain
pesticide traces. In June 2007, the USDA approved 38 non-organic ingredients
for inclusion in "organic" products, including 19 colorings, hot
dog casings and a bulking agent. Not exactly purer than pure.
Plus, as with any other culinary fetish, "organic" is a target
for swindlers. There have been numerous cases of organic food fraud in recent
years — mass-produced eggs passed off as "organic free-range," for
example. Similarly, our fixation with EVOO — as Rachael Ray has dubbed extra
virgin olive oil — has fueled a rise in olive oil fraud. Unscrupulous Italian
dealers take low-grade soy oil or "lamp oil" made from spoiled
olives and color it green with chlorophyll so that it resembles the finest
extra-virgin. So that "Mediterranean diet" of yours doesn't
necessarily keep you safe.
• Science makes our food less healthy.
We like to think that scientists are the food bad guys — plotting to fill our
diets with unnatural additives. Actually, we owe a huge amount to the quiet
behind-the-scenes work of scientists — the food detectives who do their bit
to uncover food fraud. Swindles are increasingly sophisticated and it takes
complex forensic science to expose them. In recent years, scientists have
used DNA fingerprinting to uncover fake Basmati rice, isotopes to detect "honey"
that was really corn syrup and spectroscopy to reveal fraudulent orange juice
(made by bulking out real juice with pulp wash, a liquid made from exhausted
orange pulp), to name just a few examples.
• Eating safely comes down to individual behavior.
If we all take personal responsibility for washing fruits and vegetables and
cooking poultry until it's piping hot, surely we'll be safe?
Not so. Food safety is largely a question of politics. The Chinese dairy scandal
demonstrated what happens when a government fails catastrophically at
regulating its food supply. You get a scenario — as in American cities in the
1850s — where it becomes almost impossible to make safe food choices. Sure,
the FDA should do a whole lot more to oversee the American diet. Don't
forget, though, that it does at least protect us from this kind of endemic
poisoning. We may not be out of Sinclair's Jungle yet. But stop
being scared for a moment, and you can still cook
yourself a good supper tonight. We haven't always been so lucky.
is the author of "Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud." This
article is reprinted with permission from the Washington Post.