July 1995 (vol. 11, #5)
1601 N Tucson Blvd #9, Tucson AZ 85716 c 1995 Physicians
for Civil Defense
In supporting the perpetuation of the federal regulatory regime, columnists such as Molly Ivins worry: the smallest trace of carcinogens in our food will accumulate in our bodies, eventually building up to a level that will cause cancer. Therefore, the expense of federal regulations should be no object. It's their money (industry's money), but our lives.
Ms. Ivins has, of course, no concept of where industry gets its money. But even if she has an infinite supply of money to buy food regardless of the cost, Ms. Ivins has more to worry about than she probably realizes.
Judging from federal expenditures and media coverage, the main hazards are man-made carcinogens; fat; and labels that may say ``fresh'' when the food has really been frozen or cooked (presumably before it spoiled).
To avoid carcinogens in food is impossible, Ms. Ivins. According to Bruce Ames, roughly half of all substances are carcinogenic under certain laboratory conditions. Because food contains so many substances, some are bound to be carcinogenic. And yet, eating the proper amount of the right kind of carcinogens (at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day) appears to lower the risk of cancer.
Since it is unable to control Mother Nature, the FDA focuses on controlling mothers and other human beings. One target is the use of man-made substances, such as food additives and pesticides. Not one cancer fatality has yet been linked to pesticide residues on food. Still, someday one might be, and that is all the rationale that the FDA needs.
The control agenda has been especially well accomplished with regard to labels. This problem has been solved by the combined efforts of the Dept. of HHS, the FDA, and the USDA. You may have received by mail a four-color poster explaining the new food label and providing 24-hour, toll-free numbers for further information about it. Call the USDA at (800)535-4555, or the FDA 24-hour hotline at (800)FDA-4010. (Samples: ``The new labels are easy to read and understand.'' And ``if you eat raw oysters, press `1'.'') The labels will help you regulate your intake of fat and other ingredients.
There is some good information available on the hotline, especially about raw oysters, if you don't mind having a textbook read aloud to you. The obvious (and true) conclusion from a few minutes listening is that the most important food-borne hazard is microorganisms.
The other critically important food-related problem is insufficient quantity, causing starvation.
The USDA estimates that 6.5 to 81 million episodes of food-related illnesses occur each year, and about 7,000 deaths. Most (about 97%) result from improper preparation or storage by food-handlers or consumers.
A particularly serious form of food-borne infection, first recognized in 1982, is caused by a strain of the common colon bacillus, E. Coli O157:H7. At least 20,000 cases and 250 deaths occur from this cause annually in the U.S. Most patients recover from the bloody diarrhea within a week, but between 5 and 10% develop anemia and kidney failure. Children are especially susceptible. The bacteria may live in the intestines of healthy cattle and contaminate the meat during slaughter. In the process of grinding, bacteria on the surface may be mixed throughout the meat. Outbreaks have been associated most commonly with eating undercooked hamburger, but dry-cured salami, unpasteurized milk, and raw vegetables or apple cider possibly contaminated with cattle manure have also been implicated.
More meat inspectors would not solve the problem. No violations in meat storage or grinding procedures were found.
There is a cheap, effective, and safe solution. And in this case, the FDA is not responsible for obstructing it.
Parasites and dangerous bacteria are readily killed by irradiating food with high-level gamma rays (which do not make the food radioactive). The process has been approved for use with pork and poultry and many fruits and vegetables. An especially useful application is with spices, which often contain such high levels of bacteria that most of the contaminants in the entire dish come from the pinch of seasoning. (Treatment with ethylene oxide and propylene oxide has been banned.) Beef and seafood can also be irradiated.
Although WHO, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and 37 nations approve this technology, it is not being used in the U.S. According to columnist Bill Kramer, the chief culprits are large food producers. They don't want to publicize the existence of problems, such as a Salmonella epidemic that affects about 60% of all poultry products. (Ms. Ivins, are you interested in targeting some corporate bad guys?) Nor do they want to face the wrath of antinuclear activists.
Irradiated foods now available only to American astronauts are not only more healthful, but they also keep much longer. Thus, radiation would help to increase the available food supply. But the regulators and educators continue to focus on methods that would help apocalyptic prophet Paul Ehrlich win his latest wager with Julian Simon. They favor meausures that tend to decrease the food supply, perhaps drastically: the banning of pesticides.
Without pesticides, American farmers would be defenseless against more than 10,000 species of insects, 1,500 plant diseases, 1,800 kinds of weeds, and 1,500 types of microscopic soil worms. In an extensively documented report prepared for state legislators, the American Legislative Exchange Council showed that agricultural use of these essential chemicals posed insignificant or nonexistent risks to human beings. The small amount of pesticide residue present at harvest is reduced to negligible or nondetectable levels before consumption by natural degradation and food preparation before and after marketing (The State Factor, July, 1992, 910 17th St, NW, 5th Floor, Washington, DC 20002, (202)466-3800).
Is food safe? Thanks to modern technology, it has never been safer. But the risks of microbes and famine must not be forgotten. Unfortunately, the zeal of government regulators for food safety is largely misdirected and counterproductive.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: American Council on Science and Health, Avoiding Foodborne Illness, 1995 Broadway, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10023-5860. Also see index to Access to Energy, PO Box 1250, Cave Junction, OR 97523.) News clippings on food irradiation available, (520)325-2680.