Organic Consumers Association

Consumers Worldwide Alarmed Over Food Safety

International Herald Tribune
From farm to fork, risks persist
by Barry James
June 12, 2003

The dangers lurk in the unlikeliest places.

In dishcloths, for example. A recent survey of restaurants and cafes in
Britain recently found that 9 out of 10 dishcloths were contaminated with
potentially harmful microbes.

On supermarket meat counters. When scientists investigated ground beef,
turkey, chicken and pork in Washington supermarkets a couple of years ago,
they found salmonella in one-fifth of the samples, with 85 percent of those
pathogens resistant to at least one kind of antibiotic. No wonder eggs
sunny side up and rare hamburgers are now officially unsafe. But just how
dangerous is the food we eat?

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates that food-related
illnesses kill 5,000 Americans each year and that 76 million Americans a
year get some form of food poisoning, 325,000 of them seriously enough to
need hospital treatment.

In Europe, nobody knows the extent of the problem because figures are not
collected centrally, but it is serious enough for Romano Prodi to have made
it his top priority when he took over as president of the European
Commission, the European Union's executive body, four years ago. At the
time, many people were traumatized by food scares, including mad cow
disease and dioxin contamination

Prodi decided that restoring the confidence of Europeans in their food
would be the best way of restoring their faith in European institutions,
badly dented by a scandal that had forced the resignation of the previous
commission. Food safety remains one of his top priorities, he said
recently, through a spokesman.

"It is not just a question of ensuring consumers enjoy the highest level of
food safety," he said. "It is also a question of seeing the institutions
treat people with proper respect."

The commission has achieved more progress in this area than in any other.
It has enacted dozens of new laws and set up a Food Safety Authority, which
is getting into its stride in temporary quarters in Brussels, although it
lacks the teeth of the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.

"From a regulatory and legislative point of view, food safety is an area
where we have lived up to our promise," said Beate Gminder, who speaks for
the commission on health and consumer issues.

An exhibition in Paris on food processing called "A Table" shows how the
scourges of the past such as cholera, botulism and trichinosis have largely
been defeated in the developed countries by improved hygiene. People no
longer die in large numbers from drinking beer laced with arsenic or go mad
from eating bread turned deadly by mycotoxins.

But the ancient ills have been replaced by a host of other problems with
less accessible names: Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella enteridis, E. coli
0157:H7, Shigella sonnei, Listeria monocytogenes. Many of these microbes
resist heat, cold and even antibiotics, and they are more prevalent than
most people think.

With products traveling farther than ever before from farm to table, food
safety has become a key element not only for public health but also for the
efficient functioning of markets. It is also at the heart of quarrels with
the United States over genetically modified foods, and hormones or
antibiotics in meat.

The commission follows in the footsteps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,
which in the 19th century drew up a set of safety rules called the Codex
Austriacus to enable products to move freely across its polyglot
territories. The direct successor to that body, the Codex Alimentarius of
the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization,
helps governments, including the European Commission, to write standards

"Food safety is a classic public good," said Alan Randell, secretary of the
Codex in Rome. "Basically, individuals cannot protect themselves. They have
no way of knowing whether food is safe or not."

That's why the commission is working on stricter labeling, giving consumers
in the 15 member and 10 candidate countries of the EU common nutritional
information and facts about additives as well as enabling food inspectors
to trace foodstuffs back to their source when a problem arises.

At the very least, the picture on the label should describe what's in the
package, Randell says. But deceptive labeling is rife in the industry.
Products straight from the factory are routinely touted as "natural," "farm
fresh" and "homemade." The British Food Standards Agency is complaining
about so-called chicken breasts that contain up to 40 percent added water
and pork products.

Even without taking genetic modification into account, defining food
becomes ever more difficult at a time of rapid technological change. There
is, for example, the fast-food strawberry milk shake that has more than 40
chemical ingredients, or the meat made from fungus, or the fake fat that's
supposed to let you eat junk food without putting on weight but caused an
outbreak of gastrointestinal distress in the United States.

Jim Murray, the director of the European Consumers Organization, says the
commission's record on food safety is "not bad, although there is still a
lot to be done." He places the responsibility for shortcomings not so much
on the commission as on the EU member governments, which are often accused
of putting the interests of the agricultural and food-processing industries
ahead of those of consumers.

Britain, for example, attempted to cover up the crisis over bovine
spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, the scientific name for mad cow disease.
It exported animal feed made from the remains of possibly diseased cows
around the world even while forbidding it to be fed to its own animals. The
feed proved to be the main cause of the spread of the disease to other

Countries like Germany and Denmark claimed against all the evidence that
they were free of mad cow disease until testing showed they were not.
Belgian officials sat for months on evidence of major dioxin contamination,
caused by the negligent or criminal addition of used engine oil to animal
feed, and the government fell when the public became aware of it.

The decision about where to place the Food Safety Authority has been
hampered by a still-unresolved tug-of-war between Finland, which wants the
agency in Helsinki, and Italy, which proposes the cheese- and ham-making
region of Parma. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi famously remarked, "The
Finns don't know what prosciutto is."

Meanwhile, the recently appointed executive director of the Food Safety
Authority, Geoffrey Podger, sits in a bare office in a remote part of
Brussels determined to build a credible agency no matter where it is
eventually situated. With a staff of 200 to 300, it will be one of the EU's
most visible agencies.

Podger, who in his former job as head of the British Food Standards Agency
was credited as having done a good job in restoring a degree of confidence
in British beef, said in an interview that he wants the authority to be
transparent, independent, scientifically rigorous and consumer-friendly.

"Because food is a very emotional subject, it is not easy to have rational
debates, and we want to help create more space for that," Podger said. "We
need to find ways that allow us and scientific independent colleagues to
dialogue with people who are interested in scientific questions."

Is this the kind of agency with teeth that Prodi promised? Murray thinks
not. "That was never going to be possible," he said. "The authority cannot
have more power than the commission, so this was a red herring. It cannot,
for example, close down a slaughterhouse."

Nevertheless, Podger promises that it will be independent both of the
commission and of member governments. He said he hoped the authority would
become the hub of a Europe-wide collaborative network, along with the food
safety agencies in each country.

"It's to them that people should go if they have a dodgy chicken," he said.
"Don't come to us. But if dodgy chickens turn up all over the Union, there
is a scientific issue and we will have to deal with it."

Europeans often admire the wide-ranging powers of the Food and Drug
Administration and think that food in America is safer, but "that is not
true," Gminder said. While the United States has never reported a case of
mad cow disease, she added, "They might find it if they looked."

The commission has long listed North America as a region likely to harbor
the disease a view confirmed by the recent discovery of mad cow in Canada.
"If Canadian cattle are infected, it is likely that the disease is also
present in the U.S.," the magazine New Scientist said. "The U.S. and Canada
test so few animals that low levels of BSE infection would not be detected."

Mad cow disease has left the public traumatized, with a lingering
perception that meat is dangerous, Gminder said. At the height of the
crisis, scientists predicted hundreds of thousands or even millions of
deaths from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human form of BSE. In
fact, Britain to date lists 135 proven or probable cases of the variant
disease, which unlike normal Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease affects mostly
younger people.

Gminder said the commission had engineered a step-by-step recovery from the
BSE crisis by following the advice of independent scientists and being
transparent about the risks. The testing at slaughter of all animals more
than two years old, while expensive, has helped to restore consumers'
confidence, she said, although France continues to ban British meat in
defiance of the European Commission. Strict labeling standards now make it
possible to trace food problems back to the source.

Risk materials that can convey BSE, such as the spinal column or brains,
are now about as tightly controlled as nuclear waste and must be
incinerated. The tens of thousands of tons of meat and bone meal produced
every day, which used to be fed back to animals and thus helped propagate
the disease, are incinerated in cement and power plants but are still
piling up faster than authorities can dispose of them. Scientists are
seeking to turn these wastes into natural gas, but many argue that a
simpler way of dealing with the problem would be to eat less meat.

In Britain, only 8 percent of the cultivated land is used to grow food for
direct human consumption and the rest is used to grow animal feed,
according to Vegfam, a British charity. That same land could support a
population of 250 million people on a vegetarian diet, the society argues.
Ten acres (4 hectares) of land for raising cattle, which require 30 pounds
(14 kilograms) of feed for every pound of meat, is enough to feed only two
people. The same amount of land growing soybeans could support 60 people,
Vegfam says.

Mention of soy inevitably leads to the debate about genetic modification of
foodstuffs. In the United States, more than 60 percent of all processed
foods contain ingredients from engineered soybeans, corn or canola. The EU
has had a moratorium on importing genetically engineered foods since 1998,
and now has agreed to lift it only on condition that products containing
even minute amounts of biotech products are labeled. The United States does
not label genetically engineered foodstuffs unless they differ noticeably
from ordinary ones, and calls the EU requirements protectionist.

Gminder said that genetically modified organisms are not considered a
health risk, and it is often overlooked that some already have been
approved for animal feed.

Underpinning European food law is the precautionary principle better safe
than sorry. The commission cites this in banning imports of U.S. beef
containing growth hormones. Although found at fault by the World Trade
Organization, the commission prefers to continue the ban and pay sanctions
while seeking a solution compatible with WTO rules.

The United States says the artificial hormones are eliminated from animals
at the time of slaughter, but the EU argues that pellets containing the
hormones often lodge in muscle and can produce a very high dose to anyone
eating that particular piece of meat. The commission's scientific advisers,
including several Americans, concluded in 1999 that one of the hormones,
17-beta-estradiol, "has to be considered as a complete carcinogen."

The EU has also banned four antibiotics used in animal feed because of the
risk that they were creating resistant bacteria dangerous to humans. But
three of those products still are routinely used in the United States, and
other antibiotics are widely used in Europe as well to control diseases in
overcrowded poultry farms. Similarly, in the United States, the crowding of
cattle in fecal contaminated feedlots is a leading cause of bacterial
infection of meat.

Hand in hand with food safety is the commission's proposed reform of the
Common Agriculture Policy away from mass production with its surpluses and
unacceptable cruelty to battery-raised animals and poultry.

But the problem of food-borne disease is not likely to go away unless
people change their hygienic habits.

"Very significant levels of food poisoning seem to be largely attributable
to the fact that people just don't take the kind of precautions our
grandparents used to," Podger said. "They don't wash their hands. They
don't store food at the right temperature. They don't stop raw chicken
dripping on the cooked meat. They don't throw things out of the fridge when
the time is up. I think the real truth is that because we live in a gadget
society, people think gadgets do everything for us."


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