We should be able to enjoy our food, not fear it
Thanksgiving is arguably the biggest holiday in the US. It is celebrated by virtually everybody, regardless of political leanings, religious affiliations or ethnic backgrounds. While watching American football on television is often a big part of the festivities, it is the food, and the roasted turkey more specifically, that is the centerpiece for the gathering of friends or family. Although it is a festive occasion for millions, it is also a time when food safety acquires an added importance. The large size of most turkeys means they require lengthy and careful preparation to minimize foodborne illnesses like salmonella poisoning. However, a roasted turkey is far from the only food item that Americans — or other people around the globe — need worry about.
Foodborne illnesses kill thousands and leave many more around the world sick. While higher-risk foods like livestock, fish and fresh produce are typically the ones that receive the most attention from government health regulators, consumer advocates and the media, some processed foods, which are generally considered relatively safe — from biological contaminants, as opposed to chemical hazards — have also been recalled in recent months.
In the US, the country that arguably possesses the institutional capacity to ensure that its food supply is safe, sanitary, nutritious, wholesome, and honestly and adequately labeled, popular breakfast cereals like Kellogg’s Honey Smacks were recently recalled due to an outbreak of salmonella that is much more commonly associated with poultry.
Although advances in science and technology related to farming, food processing, storage, transportation and preparation have made foods of all sorts more readily accessible to more people around the world, the challenge of foodborne illnesses continues to be a difficult puzzle to solve. This is not only true in developing countries, many of which may not have the capacity to properly regulate the food supply chain along the “farm to fork” pathway, but it is also the case in developed countries like the US and in Western Europe.
It is not unreasonable to assume that the next restaurant meal you order or item you buy from the grocery store will be safe to consume and will not make you sick. However, the process that brings that item from the farm — or sea, ocean or river — to your dinner table is lengthy and fraught with dangers almost every step of the way.
It starts with the water supply, the soil, the farming techniques used, the processing, the storage facilities and the means of transportation, to name just a few. Along the way, there could be biological contaminants like microbes, bacteria and viruses, as well as chemical hazards like metals, pesticides, growth promoters, chemicals added to food during processing, chemicals added to adulterate food, and dioxins and toxins produced by cooking during the process itself.
While clean water is now more accessible than it has been in years past, more clean water can also mean an increase in the consumption of higher-risk foods like fresh produce in developing countries. Environmental pollution has taken a toll on many kinds of fish, with higher levels of mercury in particular leading to serious health concerns. One US study maintains that climate change has also added to the complexity by “bringing novel vectors and pathogens into temperate regions or by temperature-associated changes in contamination levels.”
Developed countries are not immune to foodborne illnesses, as evidenced by the recent recall of romaine lettuce in the US. In fact, some recent studies indicate that neither Europe nor the US have made an appreciable improvement in food safety in recent years. However, it is the less developed countries that have the more daunting challenges.
The lack of regulatory capacity is one challenge that many developing countries face. Others include a lack of infrastructure, improper sanitation and inadequate health care. They all make foodborne illness more likely to spread and less likely to be detected. In addition, while most developing nations have large companies that control a large segment of the market, most are also characterized by thousands of small, informal producers selling out of their homes or on the street, who are virtually impossible to regulate.
Ultimately, it is incumbent on farmers, fishermen, producers and restaurateurs to ensure that they are carefully following government guidelines and taking seriously the tremendous responsibility they have in ensuring the food supply chain is as safe as possible.
Middle-income countries in the Middle East, for example, face a persistent challenge in the form of food establishments being shut down due to health code violations. It is virtually impossible to flip through a major newspaper without coming across an item — or two — documenting how a well-known and often popular restaurant has been shut down.
Innovations in science and technology, and increased trade and lower trade barriers, have made it possible to enjoy food from all over the world at virtually any time of the year. While it is not unusual to see an item on a menu that still refers to “in season” fruits or vegetables, those limitations are no longer the norm. However, as is the case with other sectors of the economy, for the food supply to be as safe as possible a delicate balance has to be struck between the proper level of government and self-regulation and good business practices.
For example, some critics of regulation in the US argue that the regulatory framework is redundant, cumbersome and ineffective. They cite the somewhat arbitrary separating of the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates and monitors the safety of all foods, except for meat and poultry products. These are the responsibility of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture.
Ultimately, it is incumbent on farmers, fishermen, producers and restaurateurs to ensure that they are carefully following government guidelines and taking seriously the tremendous responsibility they have in ensuring the food supply chain is as safe as possible. Many companies and businesses have discovered the hard way that cutting costs — or corners — can do irreparable damage to their brand.
But that does not absolve us, the consumers, from some responsibility. We owe it to ourselves and to our loved ones to keep up to date on food recalls and proper food preparation methods. If each does their part, we can perhaps learn to enjoy the Thanksgiving turkey instead of worrying about how it could make us ill.
- Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer