WASHINGTON, DCIt emblazons front pages of major metropolitan newspapers and leads network newscasts almost daily. And whether it's mad cow, foot-and-mouth, bio-engineered foods or a rat's head nestled within a Big Mac, the subject of food safety has spread a worldwide epidemic of fear.
Countries on virtually every continent have taken swift precautions. Mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease have led to import bans on livestock, meat, feed and ruminants from Europe, while a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) effort, to “Keep Foot-and-Mouth Disease Out of America,” urges world travelers landing in American airports to submit to shoe disinfection. Many communities in European and Asian countries have also set up checkpoints where the tires of automobiles and trucks are disinfected.
“Right now, we have a media that is hungry for news,” says Mark McLellan, director of the Institute of Food Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University (College Station, TX). “The more difficult the news is for one party, the more play it gets, and to some extent, that reflects the urgency. But on the face of it, the cases of outbreaks or adulteration, whether it was intentional or accidental, are much less than in years past. We have never had a safer food supply than we do now.”
The mad cow situation in Europe and the foot-and-mouth epidemic is indeed critical, but the dilemmas create an “optical illusion” of an escalating food-safety crisis for the communities attempting to absorb the big picture, says Timothy Willard, vice president of communications for the National Food Processors Association (NFPA; Washington, DC).
The issue of mad cow, he explains, is a relatively new phenomenon for the United States and other parts of the world, although Europe has been dealing with it for the better part of a decade. Foot-and-mouth, Willard says, is indeed a grave concern, but it is also found around the world and is older than the brain debilitating mad cow disease, scientifically known as bovine spongiform ecephalopathy (BSE). Then there are the other issues, he adds, like pathogenic contamination, and “perceived food safety issues” with biotechnology.
“Biotech is not a food safety issue, neither is foot-and-mouth. That's not to say we're diminishing continued vigilance needed by consumers and vendors to combat these issues, but these diseases are not indicative of a growing food safety problem,” Willard says. “There are always going to be issues and challenges in terms of food safety, but this isn't something that would indicate that things have gotten worse.”
Thomas Gilmore, technical director of the International Association of Food Industry Suppliers (IAFIS; McLean, VA) agrees, saying there should be concern about mad cow and foot-and-mouth, but those crises should not be part of a perceived “human food-safety dilemma.”
“It's an animal health issue. It is not a human health issue,” he adds.
At the time of this report, a CNN-USA Today Gallup poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans are concerned that mad cow disease will become a problem in the United States, and that number is expected to grow. About 29 percent, or three out of 10, of the 1,015 adults who were polled say they are alarmed by the threat of mad cow, while about 36 percent are somewhat worried. About 24 percent are not too concerned and only 11 percent indicated they are not worried at all.
The poll was taken in mid-March after reports of sheep in Vermont that may have been exposed to a form of mad cow disease and tainted feed. The poll, however, was taken before intense coverage of slaughtering the supposed infected sheep, and the results are in stark contrast to an ABC News-Washington Post poll taken in January that revealed less that half of Americans were concerned about mad cow becoming a problem in the U.S.
About 125 cases of mad cow have been discovered throughout Europe. The human variant of the disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), has killed 90 people. The disease causes proteins in the brain to change shape and form sponge-like holes, leading to dementia and ultimately death.
Foot-and-mouth cases, however, have reached to nearly 700 in Britain alone, and throughout Europe, livestock by the hundreds of thousands, namely sheep, cows and pigs, have been either slaughtered or culled for extermination. Though foot-and-mouth disease is not harmful to humans, people who have been in sustained contact with infected soil can spread the highly contagious disease.
“Futurist really got it wrong,” Willard says. “No one was forecasting plaque-like epidemics, like foot-and-mouth, mad cow and E. coli. “We should have gone back to the books and realized there will always be new diseases. These things just were not considered 12 years ago, and that's disappointing.”
Willard and Gilmore agree that the pace of food-safety advancements will be slow, and, while more steps need to be taken toward eradicating food-borne illnesses and all problems related to it, rapid advances in technology, like irradiation, promise to further improve food quality if and when federal agencies approve its use.
Baffled by biotech
But the threat of diseases and pathogens are not the only issues to contend with.
A public opinion poll released in late March by the Pew Charitable Trust, a Philadelphia-based non-profit group that aims to find a common ground among biotech food advocates and critics, says 75 percent of Americans want to know if they're eating gene-altered products.
Only 21 percent of the 1001 respondents said it wasn't important if their food was bio-engineered. About 46 percent said they were not sure about the safety of genetically altered food, while 29 percent said it was safe and 25 percent said it was not.
“Despite the heated national debate about agricultural biotechnology, most Americans do not have strong or well-formed opinions about this new technology,” Mike Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, told MSNBC News Services. “Essentially, public opinion is up for grabs because this new technology has moved faster than the public's ability to fully understand it and its implications.”
The initiative notes Grocery Manufacturers of America statistics that indicate an estimated 60 to 70 percent of all processed food may contain biotech soy or corn. Infant formula, corn chips, veggie burgers and muffin mixes are among the many products known to contain biotech ingredients.
According to Pew, anti-biotech groups, such as Greenpeace, claim that not enough is known about the potential health effects of genetically engineered plants and animals, despite federal agencies claims that there are no risks from approved biotech products and no reason for them to be labeled.
Labeling, which has been fiercely opposed by the U.S. food industry, has become more widely debated since the recall of taco shell, snack chips and other corn flour products last year for contamination with an unapproved variety of biotech corn. StarLink, a variety made by Aventis SA, was linked to more that two-dozen claims of allergic reactions by consumers. The Pew poll indicated that 73 percent of respondents were somewhat or very concerned by the StarLink recall, while 22 percent said the recall and the aftermath caused them to change their food-buying habits.
“The most significant part of their survey is that Americans don't know much genetically engineered food,” says Willard of the NFPA. “Clearly, we are at a moment where the federal government needs to continue providing guidance on information on biotech ingredients.”
But many food industry professionals say biotechnology is the key to better and safer foods and medicines.
“Biotechnology will improve the quality of life as much, if not more than, the industrial and electronic revolutions,” says Gilmore of the IAFIS. “With worldwide populations on the rise, the only way to keep up is by exploiting biotechnology to produce safer foods and drugs. Many people don't see how important it is. The food chain does not start at the nearest supermarket.”
McLellan from Texas A&M, shares that sentiment. “Instead of taking a random array of genes and hoping for the best, we can turn a gene on or off,” he says. “It's a highly controlled process that is safer than traditional agricultural breeding processes.”
The stringency of bio-engineered food screening, however, is a concern among food scientists and engineers, McLellan says.
“The [federal] screening process is so tight, and that concerns us because under that system there is no way we could use some of the common every day foods we eat now,” he adds. “If we were trying to introduce cows milk for the first time, we would never see it on the market, same with wheat or flour, because there are many people out there who are allergic to these common, every day foods.”
Big Mac, hold the rat's head
Adding to the hysteria about reports of food-borne illnesses brought on by pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli, are stories of animal parts and excrement found in food. [See “GAP survey walks fine line,” CleanRooms, December 2000, p. 1 and “Second E. Coli scare sparks meat recall,” CleanRooms, January 2001, p.1].
For example, in late March, Reuters reported that McDonald's Canada is being sued by a Toronto family that claims a severed rat's head was found between the toppings of a Big Mac that was partially ingested by a nine-year-old girl.
Documents of the $11.2 million lawsuit indicate that Ayan Abdi Jama noticed the remains of the rodent, “complete with eyes, teeth, nose and whiskers.”
These types of horror stories, along with reports of food-borne illness outbreaks are indicative of established food-quality reporting systems, McLellan says, adding that federal initiatives have bolstered an accurate information network.
“There has been a dramatic improvement in the last 10 to 15 years. There is a higher degree of scrutiny, and [officials] are trained to look for these types of things,” he says. “In years past, people might have thought there was a flu going around. Now, we are more apt to pick that up and identify a problem or a food-borne illness, and that has also heightened consumer awareness.”
And therein lies the difference, says Willard.
“I would differentiate awareness from concern and outright worry,” he says. “I think Americans have a high degree of awareness of what's happening in Europe, but at the same time, unlike a lot of European consumers, U.S. consumers are confident in the regulatory apparatus that is in place.”
McLellan supports Willard's line of reasoning, saying part of the problem is the equivalent of an FDA or USDA does not exist globally. “Without regulations, things can get of hand, but those countries are learning, granted they are learning the hard way, but they will get a handle on it,” he says. “No one wants to see mad cow transmitted or see animals slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth.”
In the meantime, McLellan, Willard and Gilmore say the food industry should continue its efforts in maintaining a universal goal of being germ-free, regardless of whether it's in processing, with emerging technologies or in handling and preparations.
They also argue that they do not see any complacency in the food industry, and that it is wrong for the industry and consumers to believe food safety has taken a downturn.
“The United States, arguably, has the safest food in the world,” Willard adds.
Adds McLellan, “If you go back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, there were tremendous troubles, but over time, the food supply has vastly improved. The food supply has never been safer.”
And they both agree that the situational mixture of mad cow, foot-and-mouth, the establishment of an open market in Europe and worldwide biotechnology concerns could not be replicated.