October 8, 2009
Everyone’s talking about food safety—or rather, the lack of it—in the American food system these days.
The New York Times published a deeply disturbing account this week of the trauma inflicted on one young woman by E. coli-tainted beef. At age 22, Stephanie Smith was left paralyzed by the simple act of eating a hamburger—a hamburger grilled by her own mother, who had no way of knowing that the frozen “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties” she had purchased for her family contained “a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps” from as far away as Uruguay.
Such severe reactions to food poisoning may be rare, but the industry practices revealed by Smith’s story are not. A pound of commercial hamburger contains bits of meat from as many as 400 different cattle, as sustainable foods advocate Marion Nestle has written. The documentary Food, Inc. offers an even higher estimate of up to 1000 cows in a single burger. Gross!
Beef is not the only issue. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently ranked the “10 riskiest foods” in the country, based on the number of food-borne illness outbreaks associated with all foods under FDA regulation. With leafy greens, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, sprouts and berries on the list, it seems that even vegetarians aren’t immune to the risk of food poisoning. Eggs, tuna, oysters, cheese and ice cream are also in the top ten. (Beef isn’t, but it’s regulated by the USDA, so wasn’t factored into this study. Actually, eggs fall partly under USDA’s purview, too. The distinctions can be confusing—maybe this will help, or at least provide a much-needed moment of levity amidst this gloomy discussion.)
“Together, these 10 foods alone account for nearly 40 percent of all food-borne illness outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated foods since 1990,” the report states, adding that because so many cases of food-borne illness go unreported, “the outbreaks included here represent only the tip of the iceberg.”
As a look at a Google News timeline will show, “food safety” has been a buzzword for at least a decade now. Unfortunately, the only thing everyone can agree on so far is that we have a problem. Some people are calling for more government involvement in monitoring and enforcing food safety; others want less; some think oversight should be consolidated. Industry groups hope that advances in food science and technology will provide the answers. Many point the blame at our globalized food system, and advocate eating local.
What do you think?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.