Smarter Living: Shopping Wise

chicken

Photo: chic/Flickr

Did you know that farms and food processors are inspected on average only once every 10 years? No wonder there are so many instances of food contamination in the United States, leaving thousands dead and one in four Americans sickened by food-borne illnesses each year.

Making matters worse, according to a recent study, the 10 foods most likely to make you sick are some of the most healthful foods—leafy greens, tomatoes and berries among them. But don't for a second think of dropping them from your diet. The news is pretty good, so read on.

Until recently, the federal government has shown little willingness to butt heads with the powerful food lobby in order to provide adequate protection for consumers and proper controls for industry. As profits and consumer confidence have plummeted with each new outbreak, the political climate has changed—so much so that in July 2009, the House reached bipartisan consensus on the most sweeping reform of the food-safety system in at least 50 years.

At the center of the legislation is an effort to transform a slow and reactive government apparatus into a preventive food-safety system. The bill gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad new powers to regulate produce at the farm level and review corporate records on activities ranging from food processing to pathogen testing. Rather than once every 10 years, inspections would take place as often as once every six months for certain items. Foreign governments whose companies send high-risk products to the United States, such as seafood from China, would be required to certify that those exports comply with U.S. health standards.

The legislation is in sync with the plans announced recently to establish a White House panel, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, that will shift the focus of food regulation toward preventing outbreaks rather than reacting to them after they occur. The FDA used the announcement to introduce a rule aimed at reducing salmonella infections from raw or undercooked eggs by 60 percent, eliminating 79,000 illnesses a year. Among other things, the regulation requires egg producers to test their facilities for salmonella and buy chicks only from farmers who monitor for the pathogen.

The White House panel called for several other changes as well. The Department of Agriculture, for example, is developing standards to reduce salmonella contamination in turkey and chicken by the end of the year and will step up the testing of beef to reduce E. coli contamination. At the same time, the FDA is developing voluntary guidelines to reduce E. coli in melons, tomatoes and leafy greens.

The political climate has clearly changed. Having lost billions of dollars to recent outbreaks, the food industry is now welcoming the White House panel’s recommendations as the best way to turn around consumer confidence. Tougher food safety rules, long overdue, will certainly help.

But consumers should remain vigilant and follow this simple rule: Learn where your food comes from and how it was grown. Be especially careful when choosing meat, chicken and other animal products. They should be grass-fed, not raised on corn or grain. Use Smarter Living's Label Lookup tool to make smarter, more informed decisions when picking up the groceries.

last revised 8/23/2011

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