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Alison Rose Levy

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Tainted Meat/Rotten Eggs: What Does It Really Take to Make Food Safe?

Posted: 08/26/10 11:03 AM ET

In the wake of the salmonella outbreak in eggs emerges a vital question: How do we raise and grow healthy food? Do we need more drugs, antibiotics, hormones, and vaccines, or fewer drugs and healthier growing practices? Do we need more layers of federal oversight that will do little to curb industrial food practices, while burdening small suppliers? Or do we need smarter legislation targeted to the real causes of food hazards?

As the discussion of this proceeds in three (and more) Huffington blogs, guess who is chiming in -- in a sponsored blog (his first) as a 'top food and drug safety expert?' It's a Strategy Executive from the IBM emerging technologies group. What is his food safety know-how? Why, it's in the use of tagging barcodes for food tracking, an area of "tremendous growth," Paul Chang says. Food safety is a big industry for IBM, which is why they decided to capitalize on the salmonella scare by weighing in on the need for more tech solutions as proposed by the upcoming Food Safety bill, discussed later in this blog.

Salmonella is a problem-- but a lesser problem when eggs are grown via healthy practices from the start. Moreover, the bug is killed by cooking.

In response to the newly minted food crisis, an article in the New York Times raises the implicit question: Should we vaccinate hens as they do abroad to prevent such outbreaks? Even though the article reports that, "the F.D.A. said that only large-scale field trials could prove that a vaccine would work in the real world of commercial henhouses," the salmonella outbreak could easily lead to a call for more vaccines. Hard upon the salmonella scale, CNN reported on a recall of "tainted meat" in Walmart-distributed deli meat sandwiches, which contained listeria, that "could be lethal." Will public concern over these threats ultimately result in improved Food Safety, or amp up fears that drive the passage of upcoming legislation that ultimately makes food less safe?

So let's first consider why we permit industries to raise chickens in filthy, inhumane conditions. Or feed them feed they were never designed to eat, that contains unhealthy byproducts? The near inevitable result will be disease and infections in animals and food, with vaccinations and antibiotics used to address the resulting illnesses.

Animals "raised on industrial farms are routinely fed antibiotics to make them grow faster and compensate for overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions," urges the non-profit organization, FarmAid. "This overuse of antibiotics creates stronger and more drug-resistant bacteria that can cause tragic results." Such as antibiotic resistance in humans, a rising health concern.

Further, there is little scientific research into whether the antibiotics, vaccines, growth hormones, and pesticides absorbed by livestock are passed along to humans who consume them, though new studies indicate that they may well be.

Though many recognize the downsides to this agricultural, food, and health management infrastructure, it's less clear how to shift it. The upcoming Safe Food legislation is a good place to begin. If, the bill passes in its current form, how long can the health conscious avoid such foods and choose organic? Will healthy food options still be available long-term without a change in the public policies and resource allocations that support the monolithic food model, and wipe out other smaller, safer food production options?

With the salmonella outbreak immediately followed by the "tainted meat" recall, I couldn't help but note the timing-- a prelude to the impending Food Safety bill S510, coming up this fall in Congress. What a coincidence that the outbreak is perfectly timed to scare the public into spending millions of dollars of tax payer money on legislation which:

  • Builds bureaucratic compliance mechanisms that serve the industrial agricultural food chain, while unnecessarily burdening organic growers and small farmers, who operate at a safer, smaller scale. Ironically, growers with safer practices could be driven out of business meeting such requirements.
  • Gifts the FDA with unprecedented powers despite its poor track record in enforcing existing safety measures
  • Increases costs astronomically while not increasing actual on-site inspections. Perhaps some of those costs are for sophisticated tracking technology rather than actual improvements in safety practices
  • Forces across the board compliance with the WTO, a first internationally.


If these twin food scares build momentum for the bill's passage, the real question may become: what is the cure for an opportunistic infection -- of fear?

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