How safe is our food?

Monday, 10 May, 2004

Between bacterial outbreaks, viral pandemics, irradiation and the continuing controversy surrounding food additives and genetic modification, it seems that the safety of what we consume regularly comes into question.

The issue of food safety is a multi-faceted and cross-dimensional issue, covering many disparate areas and a plethora of often-conflicting scientific data. Since this issue affects each and every human being alive today, the question that needs to be asked is: "How safe is the food we eat?"

Each year in Australia, about 4 million people become sick through poor food handling, costing the community nearly $3 billion through lost earnings and ensuing medical expenses. In NSW alone, the incidence of food poisoning in 2002 was over 1 million cases, costing the community some $765 million in total.

And some of these food poisoning outbreaks can also have tragic results. For example, a serious outbreak of food-borne illness occurred in 1994"“95 in an uncooked fermented sausage product, which had been improperly processed. In this incident, a four-year-old girl died and 23 children were hospitalised. At least 150 cases of illness from the same cause were identified.

In response to such incidents, most states' food safety regulations were tightened in the late '90s, requiring all food business to have an approved food safety plan. But the complexity of the regulations and the competing priorities for food proprietors meant actual compliance has been relatively low. Moreover, the globalisation of the food trade is multiplying the opportunities for international food safety crises to occur and to multiply almost exponentially. And that is just one side of the food safety coin. The other side, of course, is the argument about the safety, or maybe, the inherent lack due to food additives.

It has been estimated that most people in the West eat the equivalent of between 12 and 36 aspirins a day in the form of food additives. And only 60 per cent of these have been adequately tested for safety.

But food additives are not altogether new. Thousands of years ago the Chinese used ethylene and propylene produced by kerosene combustion to ripen bananas and peas. In Britain in the Middle Ages beer was flavoured for the first time with an additive called hops to cries of "˜adulteration!' from outraged brewers of the day.

Recently, Swedish tests found the chemical acrylamide in some starch-based foods cooked at high temperatures — including biscuits, potato crisps, chips and breakfast cereals.

But the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) says there was no need for panic.

"Our advice to the public is that the old advice of eating a balanced and varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegies is the way to go," said the authority's spokesman, Michael Dack. "I suspect that the cholesterol clogging the arteries is going to get them before the acrylamide does."

Following the Swedish test, a United States consumer group reported tests on a range of fast foods and found McDonald's chips had the highest levels of acrylamide.

On its website, the US-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest carries details of tests that found McDonald's chips in its US stores had a higher level of acrylamide than 12 other foods.

A large serve of McDonald's fries had seven micrograms of acrylamide, which is used to produce plastics and dyes and, in small amounts, to purify drinking water. The US Environmental Protection Agency sets a limit of 0.12 micrograms for water. McDonald's Australia has repeatedly said its chips are cooked differently here.

But does our food really need the chemical helping hand, and do the additives harm us? Generally speaking, food additives fall into two broad categories: those which prevent food going bad (by stopping mould, bacteria or rancidity) and those which make what we eat more appealing in colour, flavour and texture. Their use has increased along with the boom in processed foods, so that in the US for example there are now some 4000 of these chemicals shaken, dripped and stirred into the food.

Unlike the chemicals used on the farm as pesticides, food additives are not designed to be toxic — except the fungicidal and antibacterial ones. These aptly named preservatives prevent micro-organisms like the botulism bacteria growing on preserved food like ham and bacon.

But we know very little about the long-term low dose effects of adding chemicals to our food. Some colours are associated with food allergies and what is considered safe in one country may fail the grade in another. Others like "˜E123' (amaranth — US Red Dye No 2) are outlawed in Russia, Malaysia and the US because it is linked with cancer, miscarriages and birth defects in humans. Yet this same compound was used in Australia in a well-known blackcurrant drink, which was promoted as a health-giving drink suitable for pregnant women and young children.

Each country is susceptible to the pressures from the food industry and from consumers. In Australia, the US and Canada there are consumer groups studying all aspects of food additives, including the "˜hidden' additives angle. These are the chemicals which may come into our food from pesticide residues, from contact with wrappings like cellophane, from cosmetic chemicals injected into fruit skin to give colour, from wax burnishes used to polish up the skin of fruits, and the possible hazards of using irradiation to preserve fruit and other foods. Some groups, notably Pollution Probe in Canada, the Consumers' Union in the US and the Australian Consumers' Association, have brought out publications for people to use when they go shopping so they can make informed decisions about what they buy.

At least when it comes to additives, the consumer has a choice of what they will and won't buy. When it comes to microbiological additives, unfortunately for the unsuspecting consumer, the free will and choice is totally absent from the decision making process. The fact is that in relation to bugs in our food, they are an additional extra whether we want them or not.

According to a major review a couple of years ago in the International Journal of Food Microbiology, it identified four demographic groups to be at the greatest risk of food-borne illness. These were the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and the immuno-compromised. The review also noted that the case fatality ratio for food-borne bacterial gastroenteritis outbreaks in nursing homes was 10 times greater than for the general population.

According to Ross Peters, Technical Director of food quality testing company Food Operations, within the developed world, Australia's standards for food handling are in the "upper half, but not the top, such as places like the Scandinavian countries". Having said that, Peters also notes that "Viruses are of greater concern than most other adversaries in the food preparation and/or supply chain." This has been echoed in the recent food scares overseas that are gripping the mass media almost on a daily basis; the bird flu or avian virus, so-called "˜mad-cow disease' (or BSE) and even the deadly SARS virus, which has been blamed on a local Chinese delicacy — the wild feline-like creature known as the Civet.

To add to this concern is that the disinfectants and sanitisers that have been used for many years to destroy food-infecting pathogens are becoming less and less beneficial in this task, due to the pathogens developing a natural resistance to these compounds.

Although this process may take decades, Peters says that "Mother Nature is a fantastic proponent for survival of the fittest, so all micro-organisms at some time will develop resistance to adverse environments such as sanitising solutions."

For the moment though, one of the biggest problems is not just the resistance of food poisoninng pathogens; it is the fact that statistics show food poisoning occurrences are on the rise. According to Peter Sutherland, manager of the food safety watchdog, Safefood NSW, "There has been an increasing incidence in both the severity and number of food safety problems in Australia." Apart from the sometimes serious health affects, there is also the issue of community confidence levels being eroded by continuing cases of mass food poisoning outbreaks. As Sutherland points out, "confidence in food safety underpins all other attributes" of society.

And this too has become one of the key points in this debate. The question of what are the real levels of safety of the food we eat is a fundamental question that goes to the heart of most people's basic and primal concerns about themselves and the society in which they live. Community perceptions are based on what they hear or read in the media and mass food poisoning cases are often front-page stories exploited by the tabloid press for all they are worth.

Notwithstanding all the media hype, in terms of safety, there may well be nothing more crucial to a human being than the safety of what they consume on a daily basis. The facts show that food poisoning cases are on the rise and that the severity of these cases is also on the increase — a situation that organisations such as SafeFood NSW have found not only cost lives, money and medical trauma, but has also increased community anxiety levels about the quality and integrity of all food.

There are many reasons why food poisoning occurs — from improper handling procedures, to incorrect packaging, lack of proper employee training and bacterial resistance or in some cases just because of plain old bad luck. What is known though is that because of globalisation, trade is on the increase and with that increase comes an increase in food trade as well. This means that food is no longer only coming from countries which have similar high hygiene standards and stringent preparation laws as Australia, Europe and North America. It seems that concerns about food safety, just like the food-borne pathogens themselves may well be with us for quite some time to come.

Branko Miletic

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