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HOW SAFE IS OUR FOOD?
Most North Americans mistakenly believe that the food they buy is safe. Yet, 25 percent of the American population suffers from a food borne illness every year, and 5000 die. In Canada, these figures are lower, but no less disturbing.
In the developing world, contaminated water and food kill three million children who are more vulnerable due to their underdeveloped immune defences.
These days, huge quantities of food are imported from distant countries, some of which have very lax safe food regulations, and others lack the means of enforcement.
The USA imports over 40 percent of its fresh food needs from Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Canada, and other countries. Seasonality, climate and low cost necessitate these imports.
Canada’s fresh food imports are proportionately higher than those of the USA, due to mainly climatic conditions and geography. Florida is closer to Montreal than is B C.
Canada imports from South- and Central America, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, China, Japan, Morocco, Thailand, Greece, Japan and many other countries.
In the USA the USDA (United States of America Department of Agriculture) is in charge of controlling all meat, poultry and all foods containing frozen eggs; the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is in charge of all other foods.
Food borne diseases originate from farms, processing plants, careless handling, and preparation.
Chickens are raised in specially-designed buildings under artificial lighting and cramped conditions. These unnatural conditions promote spreading of harmful (pathogenic) bacteria and diseases. Farmers combat them with antibiotics. Constant use of antibiotics, however, weakens their efficacy on humans.
Similarly, cattle are fattened under appalling conditions in feedlots full of their excrement. Their feed contains all kinds of harmful additives and antibiotics. Same conditions prevail in pig-, fish- and other seafood farms.
The amount of pollution a huge pig farm creates is a major problem for rural authorities in charge of water supply.
Farm animals are administered antibiotics for speedy growth and disease resistance, but this practice males food pathogens increasingly resistant to antibiotics. rBGH, a growth hormone, is used by dairy farmers to increase daily milk production, ( 5 kg per head of cow), but some scientists claim this practice to yield unhealthy food. The Canadian department of health and welfare has so far resisted approving it.
Food distribution is fast and literally spans the world. You can find Kenyan fresh beans, Moroccan or Japanese tangerines, Chinese pears, New Zealand Gala apples, Florida oranges, California produce, Chilean or South American or Italian grapes, Portuguese or Argentine pears, French cheeses, Indian or Mexican okra, and mangoes routinely in many large North American cities. Moreover, this is justly a fraction of what else you can buy. Rapid transportation and distribution help spread pathogenic bacteria and facilitate the outbreak of epidemics.
In developing countries, irrigation and water treatment still leaves a lot to be desired. While the populations in these countries are immune, North Americans’ tolerance for even low bacteria counts is practically nil.
A lot of food consumes in North America is processed or purchased as take out. The more food is processed, the more chances exist for it to be contaminated. Improperly cleaned machines and plants are responsible for many food borne diseases, but more importantly employees often disregard even the most routine and preventive measures – washing hands thoroughly after visiting the toilet, coughing away from food being prepared, and staying away from work id afflicted with flu.
Proper food preparation is an important link in the food chain. Ground meat must be cooked at 155 F (80C) for a minimum of three minutes, and egg yolks well.
Admittedly, well done eggs and hamburgers fail to provide less than the expected eating pleasure than when slightly undercooked, but it is better to be safe than sorry. Potentially hazardous foods are: pates, hot dogs, sliced deli meats, smoked fish, blue cheese and soft cheeses. All may contain listeria (see below). Essentially the finer the food is ground and the more it is handled the more dangerous it becomes.
Food is not sterile and cannot be made risk free but every effort must be made to reduce food borne illnesses.
This can be achieved only by thorough inspections of food processing plants, animal farms, abattoirs, and constantly reminding the population to observe basic hygienic principles.
In the USA 10 percent of all chickens have salmonella and 60 – 80 percent campylobacter, and 20 percent of the latter is resistant to Antibiotics. It is worth stressing that the colon of individual contains several billions bacteria and a single bacterium, given the right conditions can multiply to billions within a 12 period.
Food safety requires constant vigilance and converted efforts of all in the chain, that is all of us.
Escherichia coli 0157:H7. Identified in 1982 it cause bloody diarrhoea and occasionally kidney failure. Results from undercooked ground beef.
Campylobacter jejeuni – commonly found in poultry. Can be treated, when diagnosed early within a week
Salmonella enteritidis – found in poultry contaminated with animal faeces.
Listeria monocytogenes – found in soft cheeses, processed meats and can survive low temperatures 40 F (7 C). People with weal immune systems, particularly children are vulnerable
Shigella sonnei – found in irrigation water contaminated with sewage or manure, and transferred to food due to improper handling. Highly infectious and spreads by physical contact, particularly with children.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu