What Does Food Safety Really Mean?

It seems we can’t go a week without news of a major threat to our food safety. On September 20th, Trader Joe’s recalled peanut butter that was connected to a salmonella strain affecting 29 people in 18 states. It was the second major recall for the retailer in just 3 months.

Beyond the routine recalls, we’re also inundated by foods laced with chemicals, pesticides, genetically modified organisms and scores of other questionable ingredients. It makes a healthy foodie wonder: What does food safety really even mean? And why doesn’t it seem to be working?

By definition, the FDA views its food safety code as a means to “safeguard public health and provide to consumers food that is safe, unadulterated, and honestly presented.”

But, as it turns out, the underfunded and understaffed FDA, as well as the EPA and even the USDA, more often rely on industry to self-regulate food safety. According to a recent article in Care2, “Of more than 10,000 chemicals allowed in human food as of January 2011, a third were approved by those with a vested interest.” In other words—the manufacturers or producers were the ones testing their own products and ingredients for safety. They let the governing agencies know about them more as a courtesy than a requirement.

Care2 goes on to discuss GRAS—the “generally regarded as safe” distinction that the FDA recognizes, but on which it does not require any approval process. Instead, the FDA simply trusts industry to do its own research, and “even when the FDA does examine safety determinations, at no point does it affirm the safety of the product.” Add to that the influence big ag and the food industry have over research institutions and universities in the first place, and its even hard to trust peer-reviewed studies anymore.

Organic foods aren’t immune, either. The National Organic Standards Board has come under scrutiny for allowing questionable non-organic ingredients into products like nondairy milks and infant formulas. Carrageenan, a known carcinogen also connected to digestive disorders is one, and an artificial DHA oil that’s actually more genetically modified than it is a natural ingredient, is another.

The USDA, which is responsible for monitoring the slaughter lines in factory farms, is already “inspecting” the safety of 140 chickens per minute and requesting to increase that number to 175 birds-per inspector-per minute. That’s determining the safety of one bird destined for human consumption every third of a second.

Food and safety should be one in the same. In the case of our industrialized, highly processed Food Industry, it’s come to be code for “foods you probably shouldn’t be eating in the first place.” Processed foods made in factories, or the animals raised in them, are at an increasing risk of exposure to pathogens and ingredients that contribute to serious health conditions. The system is inherently flawed, and therefore unsafe.

We can, however, make food safety mean something authentic. We can grow our own, get to know a local farmer, buy ingredients and make as much from scratch as possible. Then, our food’s not only safer, it’s healthier and more delicious, too.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: ansik