How Safe Is Your Food? Things to watch out for
JEAN was upset to find in the back of the refrigerator a cut of meat she had bought for last Saturday’s supper. When the family had unexpectedly gone out to eat that night, she had forgotten to put the meat in the freezer. Now four days had passed.
Reluctantly, she pulled the package out, unwrapped it, and confirmed her fears with a quick whiff. Yet, she thought: ‘Perhaps the slightly off odor will disappear with thorough cooking.’ As she weighed the matter, however, she recalled a familiar rhyme: ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’ By discarding the meat, Jean spared her family the possible health complications of eating unsafe food.
But the problem of unsafe food presents far more serious situations. Sickness resulting from contaminated food is a major cause of suffering and death in developing countries. Millions are affected even in prosperous lands. In the United Kingdom, for example, more than ten thousand cases of food poisoning are reported yearly, and possibly a hundred times that many actually occur. But what makes food unsafe?
Food may become unsafe because of contamination by harmful bacteria. This may occur when a jar of home-canned vegetables is improperly sealed, the lettuce in a fresh salad is not washed, cooked meat is left at room temperature too long, or there is careless handling by those preparing food. Food can also be contaminated by pesticide residues or by accidental contact with harmful or poisonous substances.
Vast quantities of unsafe food are exported and imported daily. During just one three-month period, the United States rejected over 65 million dollars’ worth of food as unfit for importation. Many lands, though, don’t enjoy the luxury of being able to reject unsafe food. It is often sold and consumed.
World Health magazine reports that “food-borne diseases are practically endemic all over the world, and not just among poverty-stricken households.” The magazine also says: “Illness and the lack of wellbeing leading to reduced economic productivity due to contaminated food constitute one of the most widespread health problems in the contemporary world.”
It is estimated that perhaps as many as 20 million people in the United States yearly suffer health problems from consumption of contaminated food. And in Europe, food-borne diseases are considered the major cause of death after respiratory-tract infections. “The industrialised countries have their own preferences and customs that promote food-borne diseases,” says one scientist. “One of the most obvious problems is the preference for large pieces of meat, often grossly undercooked.”
Usually no one thinks twice about dining in a restaurant or picking up a quick snack at a fast-food establishment. Hundreds of thousands of meals are served daily with no ill effects to restaurant patrons. Yet, even in developed countries, people have been affected by serious food-borne illnesses as a result of eating in restaurants.
At a restaurant in northwestern Europe, for example, more than 150 people developed food poisoning following Christmas dinner. It was later found that cooked turkeys had been carved on the same wooden chopping blocks as were used to prepare raw birds for roasting. Salmonella bacteria were later found in the cracks of the wooden blocks.
During one seven-day cruise, 20 percent of the passengers developed diarrhea. The ship’s galley was found to be overcrowded and dirty, with inadequate safe storage space. Food sat out on serving tables for long periods with no refrigeration, and leftovers were served the next day.
Although unsafe food is a problem even in developed countries, the consequences are disastrous in developing lands.
A Part of Daily Life
World Health magazine reports that in many areas of the world, the high prevalence of malnutrition is not due simply to a lack of food “but rather [to] the eating of contaminated, unsafe food.” This leads to repeated episodes of diarrhea and other infectious diseases.
“In 1980,” World Health reported, “there were 750-1,000 million episodes of acute diarrhoea in children aged under five in the developing world (excluding China). Nearly five million children died, at a rate of ten diarrhoeal deaths every minute of every day of every year.” But children are not the only ones who are at risk. A 1984 report on “The Role of Food Safety in Health and Development” noted that “travellers’ diarrhoea is now a widespread phenomenon, affecting about 20 to 50 per cent of all travellers.”
Ignorance regarding proper hygiene no doubt is the cause of most food-borne diseases. Food may be safe to begin with but then becomes contaminated by the consumer or by a middleman, such as a shopkeeper or cook.
Likewise, cultural beliefs may lead to the contamination of food. In certain areas of Mexico, for example, people believe that hands made “hot” by sewing, ironing, baking, and so on, should not be washed immediately. Too early chilling by water, it is thought, will cause rheumatism or cramps. Thus, a woman with “hot” hands may use the toilet and then turn to preparing the family meal without washing her hands. As a result, harmful bacteria are spread.
On the other hand, some cultures have traditions that, if followed, are helpful in curbing the spread of food-borne disease. In many homes in India, where cooking is done at floor level, shoes worn in the streets are removed before entering the house, especially the kitchen. Also, fruit is peeled before it is eaten. Meat is eaten within a few hours after the animal is slaughtered. And meals may be eaten from freshly washed leaves instead of plates.
Tackling the Problem
How near is man to reaching the goal of providing an adequate amount of safe food for all people? Commenting on the problem, a United Nations report on food safety said: “In the last 40 years, international organizations have produced a large number of technical reports and initiated many programmes to deal with this issue. Yet food-borne illness continues to increase.”
What is needed to cope with the problem is education for the public in general and mothers in particular. Then individuals can take precautions against contaminating food and can maintain safe eating habits for themselves and their families.