How Safe Is Your Food?

November 18, 1988

Report Outline
Special Focus


It seems that whatever we bite into has a mind to bite back. Food poisoning outbreaks from contaminated meat, poultry and seafood are on the rise. Pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables may pose cancer risks. Eggs have been implicated in a new type of bacterial infection. And consumers want to know whether the agencies responsible for guarding the nation's food supply are doing their jobs.

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Health-conscious Americans have heeded warnings about “junk” food and dangerous additives. They are eating more basic foodstuffs: poultry, fish, lean meat, fruits and vegetables. But consumers are discovering that it's not just processed foods that pose health risks. In 1985, for example, hundreds of Californians got sick from cheese contaminated with the bacteria listeria, and at least 40 died. That same year, nearly a thousand people became seriously ill by eating watermelons that contained residues of the pesticide aldicarb. In 1986, 140 dairy herds were quarantined and dairy products were recalled in eight states because of contamination by a banned pesticide. Use of sulfa drugs on calves and pigs has caused severe allergic reactions in sensitive consumers.

“There has been a revolution in the potential for disease from farm or sea to your table,” Edward L. Menning, executive vice president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, told a congressional committee. “On the Ohio farm where I was raised, we would go to the henhouse, catch a chicken (which had eaten only from our farm), kill it … and immediately ‘cook the hell’ out of it. If the bird was diseased and anything escaped cooking, only my family would have become ill.” Today, Menning says, “animals are fed contaminated feeds from all over the country, are raised in monstrous close-quartered numbers, are comingled in feed lots from around the country … then are further cross-contaminated in the slaughter plants. Production lines go so fast that the equipment furthers the accidental fecal contamination…. All this is then further cross-contaminated by the cutting up, grinding up and mixing that is now common. Finally, these mixed up products are refrigerated, shipped and received by the retail outlets sometimes under variable temperature conditions. They then are held and sold fresh for many days.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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Nov. 18, 1988  How Safe Is Your Food?
Dec. 11, 1981  Controversy Over Salt in Food
Dec. 08, 1978  Fast Food: U.S. Growth Industry
May 12, 1978  Food Additives
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Feb. 09, 1952  Chemicals in Foods
Dec. 18, 1934  Revision of the Pure Food and Drugs Act