Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Food Supply Contamination Larger Than Just Microorganisms

by Duane Craig

It seems the contamination of the food supply is ramping up again. Salmonella was found on cilantro from California on February 1, and Stop & Shop voluntarily recalled salad mixes that had tested positive for Listeria on January 29. In that case the contaminated salad was actually discovered at another retailer.
A few days earlier, a pizza maker recalled pizza with suspected Listeria contamination, and not long before that a shellfish company agreed to shut down after four recalls over the past two years. This latest one was for Listeria.

Perhaps in a rather ironic way, at least a couple of these companies had the word “natural” in their names. Of course, there is probably nothing more natural than some of these contaminating organisms, but when we think of “natural” we tend to think of wholesomeness rather than something that will make us sick.
According to the FDA, foodborne illnesses strike 48 million Americans each year, hospitalizing 128,000 and killing 3,000. There is a statistical anomaly there because the USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) claims there are 76 million cases. Most foodborne illnesses are contamination of the food with microorganisms that are harmful to humans. The main culprits are Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella.

Now, an interesting twist on food contamination is that the packaging on chicken may help spread these illness-causing organisms. In one report from the UK, Campylobacter was discovered on the outside of the wrapping on chicken meat. So while the food preparer might wash hands before beginning preparation, if the packaging is handled followed by the meat, then cross contamination is likely.

There is another perhaps more sinister type of food contamination from packaging being warned of. It’s more sinister because governments and the food industry are not really paying much attention to it. It is the contamination of the food by chemicals in the packaging. As usual, it’s Europe that is awakening to this first. The scientific head of Switzerland’s Official Food Control Authority, Koni Grob, says the “widespread contamination of food by packaging materials is being ignored by governments, scientists and the food industry.”

These forms of contamination are largely related to plastic wrap and other types of petrochemical-based packaging. One innocuous example is the PVC used on the lids of jars holding oily foods that leaches plasticizer compounds into the food. Food jars from Asia often are made with phthalates that leach into the foods. This, according to Krob, has been known about for at least two years, yet nobody is reacting to it.
The bare truth of the matter is that it is impossible to have a completely safe food supply. In olden times, food was contaminated with a wide range of microorganisms and even macroorganisms such as fly larvae. At least in those days the contamination was mostly the naturally occurring kind. Today while the governments and companies fight microorganism contamination perhaps a more serious problem of petro-chemical contamination and its long-term consequences continues unchallenged.

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