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Wednesday, March 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Industry, politics get the blame for unsafe food

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology and Bioterrorism"


by Marion Nestle
University of California Press, $27.50
Author appearance


Marion Nestle will talk at 5 p.m. today at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St.; free. Information: 206-624-6600. She will also talk at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Kane Hall, University of Washington; free tickets are required and are available at University Book Store. Information: 206-634-3400, Ext. 256.

With the dust still settling from her last controversial book about the food world, Marion Nestle already is stirring things up with another.

In last year's "Food Politics," Nestle ruffled feathers by blaming America's growing obesity epidemic on the food industry and government, contending they promote massive overeating of the wrong foods.

In her new book, she zeroes in on food safety, charging that segments of the food industry choose profits over safety, and the government allows gaping holes in the safety net.

Food-borne-illness numbers "defy belief," writes Nestle, a New York University nutrition expert. One annual national estimate: 76 million cases, 325,000 hospitalizations, 5,000 deaths. These probably are underestimates, she says, because most episodes are never reported.

Leading culprits include campylobacter, salmonella, listeria, staphylococcus, E. coli, shigella, giardia and certain viruses. Bioengineered foods and the possibility of bioterrorism raise additional safety questions.

Always provocative, Nestle contends that "Major food industries oppose pathogen-control measures by every means at their disposal," including lobbying government, raising court challenges and obstructing safety enforcement.

As for government, she argues, "For reasons of history, inertia, turf disputes and just plain greed, government oversight of food safety has long tended to provide far more protection to food producers than to the public."

Her chief theme: Food-borne illness is as much a matter of politics as of science and will require political solutions. Among those she favors:

Create a single federal food agency to eliminate the gaps that result from many government agencies trying to oversee food. She calls the current system "breathtaking in its irrationality," with a dizzying array of laws, departments and agencies involved.

Authorize regulatory agencies to recall unsafe foods. Recalls now are voluntary on the part of food companies.

Channel more resources into government's food-safety functions.

Professor and chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, Nestle has been senior nutrition policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She was managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health and has served on governmental advisory committees on food and science.

Most cases of food-borne illness are mild. Yet severe cases can be fatal, as Washingtonians learned during a major E. coli outbreak here in 1993. Hundreds were sickened, and several died in the outbreak, linked to undercooked fast-food hamburgers.

"From a public health standpoint, the cost to society of such episodes is staggeringly high," Nestle writes.

She cites case after case in which the system has failed, including a 1994 salmonella outbreak that affected more than 220,000 people in 41 states and stemmed from packaged ice cream. The ice cream was made from a premixed liquid base delivered in a tanker truck that had previously carried unpasteurized liquid eggs, a breeding ground for salmonella.

"Such incidents are fully preventable," writes Nestle.

She names the following practices and trends she believes encourage the rise or the harmful impact of food pathogens:

The concentration of meat and poultry production among fewer and fewer companies; centralized processing of food from many sources; continual use of low-dose antibiotics in animals, giving rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria; a globalized food supply; poorly paid and undertrained food workers; rising popularity of convenience foods such as pre-cut fruits, vegetables and salad mixes, all subject to more handling and possible pathogen exposure; and an aging U.S. population harder hit by harmful microbes.

Though a widely praised federal meat-and-poultry safety system known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) took effect in the 1990s, legal battles and court decisions have weakened its enforcement, says Nestle. The system involves safety checks at crucial points in food production.

Nestle would like to see HACCP fully enforced and extended to every step of food production, with standards verified by pathogen testing, though many in industry argue such testing is less effective than it sounds.

Her stand on bioengineered foods as a safety issue is less clear-cut. In fact, because the questions surrounding transgenic foods are so broad — environmental, social, scientific, economic, ethical — the topic's inclusion in this book on food safety seems a stretch.

Nestle finds the fear that biotech foods may be unsafe for some people — with the potential to cause allergic reactions, for instance — to be scientifically unproven, though not impossible.

Her chief recommendation: Require the labeling of transgenic foods so consumers can decide for themselves. Producers contend that such labels would erroneously imply there is something wrong with these foods.

As for food bioterrorism, Nestle sees this as a concern to be safeguarded against, if not yet a reality.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she says, "raised alarms about the ways food and biotechnology could be used as biological weapons."

The attacks also "encouraged more forceful calls for a single food agency to ensure food security."

Judith Blake: jblake@seattletimes.com

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