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2002 Special Food Safety Edition

 



Table of Contents

How safe is our food supply ?

In search of an answer to the question, “How safe is our food supply?” Sarah Hinds of Consumer Action News interviewed Carol Tucker Foreman, distinguished fellow and director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). During the Carter Administration, Foreman oversaw food safety and nutrition programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She currently serves on USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection and on the Food and Drug Administration’s Advisory Committee to the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

What is the biggest food safety problem today?
If you calculate the biggest problem in food safety based on the number of illnesses and deaths each year, food poisoning is the biggest threat. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food poisoning causes about 76 million illnesses each year. These result in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Although many consumers would list threats from genetically engineered foods or bioterrorism as their biggest concern, there is no evidence that these have harmed human health.

How safe is our meat?
Not safe enough. The CDC says meat and poultry are among the most common sources of foodborne illness. The illnesses associated with meat and poultry include Salmonellosis (traced to contaminated meat, poultry and eggs), Campylobacteriosis (usually traced to poultry), E. coli O157:H7 poisoning (from beef), and Listeriosis.

Listeriosis is a special concern because it occurs in cooked, ready-to-eat meat products and grows under refrigeration. It doesn't occur frequently but has a higher fatality rate than the other diseases associated with meat and poultry. If a pregnant woman contracts Listeriosis it virtually always results in miscarriage or stillbirth.

Other major sources of food poisoning are raw fruits and vegetables that have been contaminated by infected meat, and raw mollusks and shellfish.

hamburger image Why isn't meat safer?

That's a good question since the USDA employs 7,600 inspectors and spends over $800 million a year of our tax money to inspect meat and poultry. Every package of meat and poultry is stamped "USDA Inspected and Approved."

There are at least three reasons why our meat supply isn't safer. First, for many years both industry and the USDA (which regulates meat and poultry safety) insisted that industry was not responsible for controlling disease-causing organisms in raw meat and poultry. They argued that the organisms occurred naturally in the animal's gut.

Consumers, not the food company, they asserted, had to control the pathogens by handling and cooking meat appropriately. (If this is the case, one wonders why we spend the money and what the inspection seal actually means?)

Second, meat and poultry inspection has always been conducted by the USDA, which historically cares more about promoting production and sale of agricultural products than protecting human health. For a few years USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service tried to make protecting human health its first priority. Industry was outraged and the agency is now back to protecting industry interests at the expense of public health.

Third, USDA has no authority to regulate farms where animals are produced in order to prevent initial contamination and no authority to require recall of contaminated meat and poultry. Last year a federal appeals court limited USDA's authority to set and enforce limits on pathogen contamination of raw meat and poultry.

What is the current state of government regulation of our food supply?
It is ironic that USDA has a large inspection force and adequate resources to control food safety but puts industry convenience ahead of human health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a commitment to public health but insufficient authority and resources to protect us against contaminated fruits, vegetables, seafood and eggs.

The biggest problem is that responsibility for assuring the safety of our food supply is scattered among 12 different agencies and governed by 50 different laws. A cheese pizza is regulated by FDA while USDA regulates pepperoni pizza. This creates gaps in health protection.

Is there any legislation being considered right now that addresses food safety issues?
There are two vitally important bills now before Congress that consumers should strongly support. Senate bill S. 1501 and House bill H.R. 1671 would create a single independent food safety agency to combine resources and commitment in one place and remove health programs from the industry-dominated USDA.

The Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act (S. 2013 and H.R. 3956) would require the Secretary of Agriculture to set and enforce limits on the level of food-poisoning organisms in raw meat and poultry.

What can consumers do to protect the safety of their food?
Consumers need to act on two levels - public and private. First, support passage of these bills. Write to your member of Congress and your state lawmakers urging them to act immediately.

Write to the White House and insist that President Bush make protecting the public from contaminated food a priority of his administration. Let the President know that, while industry contributors may like the industry-friendly folks at USDA, the voters do not.

Children are highly susceptible to food poisoning. Write to the President and to Congress insisting that USDA continue to enforce a zero tolerance for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 in school lunch meat. Urge Congress to write these protections into the National School Lunch Act next year.

egg in a pan image

And you must practice self-defense. Handle all foods carefully. (See Steer clear of food poisoning for safe food handling suggestions.)

It is harder to protect yourself when you eat out because you don't know and can't control what happens in the kitchen.

Ask the restaurants you patronize what they do to assure food safety. Ask if they require their meat and poultry suppliers to test their products and provide assurance that they are relatively free of contamination.

Find out what your local and state health departments are doing to improve restaurant safety.

Lead finds its way into food

Consumer Action's Healthy Children Organizing Project (HCOP) works to protect young children from preventable diseases caused by environmental hazards in San Francisco's low-income and minority communities. This article was written by Martha Hannan, HCOP's associate director.

Did you know that you might be feeding your child lead?
Lead is the number one environmental threat to children in the U.S. Lead poisoning can have devastating, lifelong consequences, such as retardation, stunted growth, attention deficit disorder and lower IQ. Lead can enter the body through food in a number of ways. Food prepared or served in ceramics containing lead paint can become contaminated as the lead in the surface of the pot or plate is absorbed into the food. This is most likely to happen with hot food, as the heat facilitates the absorption process. Most ceramics sold in the U.S. are lead-free, but some imported ceramics still contain lead paint. You can test your ceramics for lead paint using a simple kit available from some hardware or drug stores. Alternatively, you can contact the manufacturers of the kit directly at 1-800-262-LEAD.

In the garden
Vegetables grown in contaminated soil may contain lead. Lead paint dust from walls and structures surrounding the garden may cause the soil to have dangerous levels of lead. Lead in the soil will contaminate the vegetables you grow; this is particularly true for leafy greens and root crops. To keep your food safe, get your soil tested, locate your garden away from old, painted structures if possible, plant fruiting crops and wash all your produce thoroughly before serving.

Good nutrition can help protect children from lead poisoning. Children who eat enough calcium and iron absorb much less lead. Children who eat high-fat foods that are low in iron and calcium absorb higher amounts of lead because their bodies mistake lead for the minerals they need to grow, often resulting in lead poisoning.

Many of the low-income communities HCOP works with in San Francisco struggle to provide healthy and nutritious food for their children. Fresh vegetables and non-processed foods tend to be less available in the stores where they live. Organic produce is often prohibitively expensive for low-income families. In addition, many of the major junk food manufacturers focus their advertising campaigns in lower-income communities.

Grassroots efforts
There are some great organizations working to reverse this trend and to make safe and healthy food available to poorer families. We encourage you to find local groups in your area and support them in this vital work.

In San Francisco, HCOP is working with the following organizations:
Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) works with youth and school groups in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood to promote an understanding of environmental justice issues, including food security. LEJ is building a permanent farmers' market for the community and it is petitioning community grocery stores to persuade them to sell more healthy food.

Children's Council of San Francisco and Wu Yee Children's Services are the two child care resource and referral agencies in San Francisco. They have food programs which offer child care providers financial incentives to serve healthy food in their programs.

San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) organizes a monthly produce stand in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood. They offer organic preserves called Urban Herbals produced by low-income youth. SLUG also offers soil tests and performs soil remediation in city yards to make sure the soil is healthy for vegetable cultivation.

Scared by Franken-foods?

By Sarah Hinds

In the not-too-distant past, eating genetically engineered food seemed as unlikely as an encounter with the fictional man-made monster Frankenstein. But in reality it is difficult to avoid eating "Franken-foods," as opponents of genetic tinkering call them. As large global food producers rush the new products into existence, fears about allergies, new pathogens and harm to humans, wildlife and the environment abound.

Genetically engineered varieties of soy, corn, tomatoes, canola and squash, among other crops, are approved for use in the U.S. In addition, since products like canola oil and soy are in many prepared foods, genetically engineered ingredients are present in a lot of what we eat. Popular packaged foods such as Fritos, Slim Fast, Gardenburgers and Ovaltine are among the many products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

In genetic engineering, genes from one type of living organism are altered by adding the genes of unrelated organisms in a willful manipulation of the evolutionary process. This changes the genetic make-up of the original organism so that it acquires a new characteristic, such as a food crop that is resistant to insects or commonly used herbicides.

Cross pollination has been used to combine plant varieties for hundreds of years, but genetic engineering puts the process into fast-forward, creating completely new genetic traits. No longer do we just marry genes from different plants - now genes from plants, animals, insects and bacteria can be combined.

Caution is advised
Many people are concerned about the unprecedented speed and drastic nature of this new technology. Because of potential risks to human health and the environment, some scientific and environmental groups are calling for increased testing, labeling and regulation of genetically engineered crops.

Allergic reactions?
One of the biggest health threats is the fear that allergens will be introduced into the food supply in new products. Genetically engineered foods do not carry a special label, so consumers have no way of knowing what new gene combinations they contain.

In 1995, University of Nebraska researchers tested soybeans that were engineered to contain Brazil nut proteins on blood samples taken from people with Brazil nut allergies. The researchers found that the soybeans would have caused allergic reactions if people with Brazil nut allergies had eaten them. As a result, the soybean was not released into the market.

Sneaking into foods
Genetically modified crops developed for animal feed that are not approved for human consumption have entered the human food supply in the past. In September 2000, Starlink, a genetically modified corn approved only for animal feed, was found in Taco Bell brand taco shells, setting off a domino effect of recalls for companies producing corn products, including Kraft Foods, Kellogg's and Pepsi Co. Starlink had specifically been kept from human consumption because of allergy concerns. Kraft Foods, which produces the Taco Bell brand, was forced to recall more than 25 million of its taco shells.

Reacting to the Starlink outbreak, Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists called for labeling of genetically engineered foods. "Uncertainty about whether genetic engineering is adding new allergens to the food supply is one reason consumers are demanding a choice that allows them to avoid eating genetically engineered food if they wish," said Rissler. "That choice is unavailable without mandatory labeling."

According to Rissler's group, genetically engineered crops carry many health and environmental risks and warrant increased testing and regulation. These risks include increased antibiotic resistance, outbreaks of new viruses and plant toxins, damage to wildlife and the creation of new weeds that could hamper agriculture and upset ecosystem balance.

corn image

Regulation needed
In February, the National Academies of Science released a report calling for increased regulation and ecological monitoring of genetically engineered plants by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The report also stated that the USDA branch that regulates genetically engineered plants should increase scientific and public review of genetically engineered crops.

"This report exposes another example of corporate interests trumping environmental protection and the public interest. The USDA has to start doing its own homework and stop turning in work done by the biotech industry," said Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, science advisor to the non-profit environmental group Greenpeace.

Genetically engineered crops are big business. The U.S., Canada and Argentina together produce 96 percent of the world's genetically engineered crops. According to the USDA's annual survey of what farmers are planting, American farmers are expected to grow over 79 million acres of genetically engineered corn and soybeans in 2002, an increase of 13 percent from last year. In the coming year, 74 percent of the U.S. soybean crop and 32 percent of the corn crop will consist of genetically engineered varieties.

Enables pesticide use
Some genetically modified crops are explicitly tied to the purchase of other products. For example, biotechnology giant Monsanto created soy, cotton and corn seed called "Roundup-Ready," because it is bred to be resistant to the company's best-selling "Roundup" weed killer.

Such breeding leads to increased use of poisonous pesticides. According to the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the majority of genetically engineered crops planted (74%) are designed to withstand applications of toxic farm chemicals. These are crops engineered to tolerate specific pesticides so that the pesticide can be applied without harming the crop. Herbicide-resistant crops can lead to an increased use of toxic pesticides and threaten human health, the safety of our drinking water and food, and wildlife. Two common pesticides, bromoxynil and glyphosate, have been linked to tumors, carcinomas, developmental disorders in fetuses, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

To avoid genetically modified products, buy organic food. The government has ruled that foods labeled as organic must be free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in order to be certified.

The Greenpeace True Food Now web site (www.truefoodnow.org) provides an extensive list of non-GMO foods. The site also includes information about which fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds have been genetically engineered and which are being tested in biotech industry field trials.

Just what does eco-friendly mean?

Consumers Union (CU), the publisher of Consumers Reports magazine, launched the Eco Labels web site (www.eco-labels.org) to end confusion over ecologically-correct labeling claims. CU aims to help consumers find out whether products really have been grown using sustainable agricultural methods, manufactured without causing pain or stress to animals or harvested by workers being paid a fair wage.

Doing the right thing can be complicated. If you've ever wondered what it means when labels state that wood was grown in sustainable forests or coffee was grown on bird-friendly plantations, you can find an explanation on the site.

Urvashi Rangan, director of the Eco Labels project, said that this is the first comprehensive attempt to catalog and unravel eco-friendly claims.

"When a product is labeled free-range, it implies that the animals are outside foraging around all the time" said Rangan. "But the only thing the claim requires the manufacturer to do is provide access to the outside for an undetermined period of time each day."

Avoid dangerous chemicals by eating organic foods

By Linda Sherry

All vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains are good for you - or are they? Today many consumers are choosing organically grown produce because they want to avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Other food safety issues also are steering consumers to organic food, including concern about genetically engineered crops and the use of growth hormones and antibiotics.

Many people wonder whether paying higher prices for organically grown foods is worth the money. While organic food has its foes - mostly supporters of the huge industrial farming and chemical industries - it seems clear that buying and consuming a variety of organic foods is the best way to limit your dietary exposure to many synthetic chemical residues.

Organic proponents also offer compelling biological evidence that crops grown with chemical fertilizers instead of compost absorb more water, which dilutes nutrients, sugars and flavors.

Organic food is grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, instead using traditional farming methods such as crop rotation and compost to aid soil renewal and nourish plants.

National standards
In 1990 federal legislation was passed to set a national standard for organic food production based on the California Organic Foods Act of 1990.

Many independent organizations certify food as organically-produced. The most widely accepted organic certification program nationwide is the California Certified Organic Farmers. However, small farms are exempt from certification requirements and more than two-thirds of the country's organic farmers do not pursue certification.

A growing demand
Last fall, 63% of the respondents in a national survey by RoperASW said they sometimes or always buy organic fruits or vegetables. When RoperASW surveyed consumers in 1997 about buying organically grown foods, only one in four said they had purchased an organic fruit or vegetable in the past 12 months.

Forty percent of last year's respondents indicated that they would be increasing consumption of organic fruits and vegetables over the coming year. Half of those surveyed said they will use even more organic foods in their homes within the next five years.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, said: "It's encouraging that organic food is the fastest growing sector of the food industry. Consumers obviously want to avoid pesticides, chemicals, hormones and engineered food products. If the growth continues at this rate, organic farming will be the dominant form of agriculture by 2018."

Toxic residues
The Federal Food and Drug Administration samples foods for pesticide residues and finds contaminants known to be dangerous to human health at certain levels of exposure in 30%-40% of samples.

In a study of supermarket produce published in January 1998, Consumer Reports magazine found that conventional produce was more than three times as likely to contain residues of toxic pesticides than organic produce.

Consumer Reports also noted that "buying organic food promotes farming practices that really are more sustainable and better for the environment - less likely to degrade soil, impair ecosystems, foul drinking water or poison farm workers."

strawberry image

Environmental harm
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national non-profit organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment, traditional chemically-dependent, land-intensive agriculture presents numerous problems, including:

  • Health risks. Heavy reliance on pesticides by conventional farmers is suspected of leading to increased rates of cancer and reproductive problems in humans. More than 80% of the most commonly-used pesticides today - routinely found in mother's milk as well as produce samples - have been classified as potentially carcinogenic (cancer causing).
  • Toxic runoff. Pesticide-containing runoff from farmland flows into rivers, lakes and streams, taking a toll on wildlife and destroying riparian (waterside) habitats.
  • Decreased biodiversity. With an emphasis on yield, uniformity, market acceptability and pest resistance, present-day agriculture sacrifices a variety of species. Before modern industrialized agriculture, farmers produced roughly 80,000 species of plants; today farmers rely on about 150, which has led to less diverse diets.

Children at risk
Critics of the government's acceptable levels of chemical residues in crops point out that the standards don't look at children's diets, which tend to be less diverse than adult diets. Children's smaller size and weight may mean they are especially susceptible to chemical contaminants in food.

A National Academy of Sciences panel asserted in 1993 that federal allowances for pesticide residues are too lenient. The panel found that infants and children could be harmed by allowable pesticide residue levels. Environmentalists have issued warnings of the dangers to children under five years old from pesticides in apples, peaches, popcorn and corn chips as well as national baby food brands.

Industry secrets
Last year, public television journalist Bill Moyers targeted the chemical industry in a PBS special, "Trade Secrets." Looking back at 50 years of chemical industry skullduggery, Moyers found a grand-scale cover-up of the dangers of working and living with an ever-growing list of synthetic chemicals.

Using internal company and industry association documents, Moyers outlined a behind-the-scenes campaign by chemical companies to limit the regulation of toxic chemicals, avoid liability and withhold vital information about risks from workers, the government and the public.

During the program, Moyers revealed that he had learned that his own blood contained a frightening "chemical soup" after he took part in a medical study to measure pollutants present in the human body.

Even though Moyers had never worked in or lived near a chemical plant, his body contained residues of 84 industrial chemicals, including PCBs, poisonous manufacturing byproducts commonly found in fish, and the banned pesticide DDT.

cherry image

Pesticide heavyweights
The Environmental Working Group is a national watchdog organization and proponent of organic foods. It has prepared a list of non-organic produce tending to have the highest levels of pesticide contamination and offers some alternatives with similar or better nutrient content. Find the list at www.ewg.org by using the site's search function and typing in "shopper's guide."

organic seal image

National Organic Program
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the first accredited organizations that will certify organic production and handling under the National Organic Program (NOP). Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman called it "an important step ... to provide greater marketing choices for consumers."

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, adopted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, required the USDA to develop national standards to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent, uniform standards.

Organic labeled products must come from farms or handling operations certified by an accredited organization. Only certified businesses will be allowed to carry the USDA organic seal, which can't be displayed on retail products before Oct. 21. (Use of the seal, shown at left, is voluntary.)

The standards detail practices for producing and handling organic crops and livestock, as well as processed products. Farms that sell less than $5,000 worth of organic foods per year are exempt from certification.

The USDA has estabished a 15-member consumer and industry advisory panel - the National Organic Standards Board - to set NOP standards.

Standards are set
The final standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge on products to be labled organic. Other requirements include:

  • Products labeled as "100% organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).
  • Labeled organic foods must contain no more than 5% of the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide residue tolerance level.
  • Organically raised animals may not be given antibiotics or hormones to promote growth. All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors.

For more information
The Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org) is a public interest membership organization dedicated to a healthy, safe, and sustainable food system.

Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org). Click on "Toxic Chemicals and Health" for information on chemicals known to cause serious harm to people and the environment. Phone: (212) 727-2700.

Pesticide Action Network North America (www.panna.org) offers information about the health and environmental impacts of pesticides. Phone: (415) 981-1771.

USDA National Organic Program (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/) provides information about national organic food labeling standards. Phone: (202) 720-3252.

Toxics can hitchhike the globe

By Linda Sherry

Growing concern about a group of industrial chemicals used worldwide that are toxic to wildlife and people has resulted in a global treaty that aims for the first time in history to eliminate or severely restrict use and production of the chemicals.

These "persistent organic pollutants" - most of which already have been banned by the U.S. - have a very long life. They don't break down in the body or the environment, are passed from mother to fetus in the womb and travel great distances on wind and water currents.

(The term "organic" used here refers to the chemical makeup of the compounds, not to food grown without chemicals.)

At recent global summits held in Europe and South Africa, a majority of more than 100 governments supported the goal to ban the use of the poisons. More than 150 environmental, public health and social service organizations are working to get the treaty ratified by at least 60 governments.

Despite U.S. bans on most of these chemicals, each of us can get up to 70 daily exposures in our diets, according to a study by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) and Commonweal.

Kristin Schafer of PAN said that the chemicals have been linked to disease and developmental disorders, including breast and other types of cancer, immune system suppression, nervous system disorders, reproductive damage and disruption of hormonal systems. Two of the pervasive pollutants in food are dieldrin and DDE. Dieldrin is a highly persistent and very toxic pesticide banned since the late 1970s. DDE is a breakdown product of DDT, banned since 1972.

Other countries continue to manu-facture and use these chemicals, and they are carried across the globe by air, water currents and rain. "U.S. consumers have a right to know that chemicals banned in this country years ago continue to contaminate their food," said Schafer.

Late summer goal
PAN and other activists hope the treaty will be ratified by late summer in time for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa. There participants will assess global progress on a sustainable development blueprint created at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. "This treaty marks the first time the global community has called for a ban on these kinds of chemicals," said Schaefer.

Until their use is stopped worldwide, these chemicals potentially could find their way into even organically grown food.

Using FDA chemical residue data, Scaefer and colleagues found the pollutants in all food groups - from baked goods and meats to fresh fruits and vegetables. They warn that dozens of exposures could result from one large holiday meal.

Ten foods to avoid?
PAN's "Nowhere to Hide" report is available online (www.panna.org). It identifies foods that tend to contain high levels of these pollutants, including butter, cantaloupe, cucumbers/pickles, meatloaf, peanuts, popcorn, radishes, spinach and squash.

Schafer, program director of the San Francisco-based PAN, urges consumers to buy organic food. "Making the choice for organic foods is the right choice. We need to support the organic food industry."

Livestock antibiotics imperil human health

By Sarah Hinds

Since the 1940s, antibiotics have been a staple in our medical arsenal, essential to the treatment of bacterial infections ranging from food poisoning to pneumonia. We count on these drugs to keep us healthy, but antibiotics are losing their effectiveness because of rampant and often unnecessary use.

Excessive antibiotic use increases the risk that resistant strains of bacteria will develop in response to treatment. While the use of antibiotics in human medicine is usually prescribed in response to serious illness, livestock producers routinely use the drugs to prevent illness in healthy animal populations. There is growing concern that using antibiotics in this way is creating resistant strains of disease that are infecting humans.

Some antibiotics have lost their power to treat infection. In 1991, New York City experienced an outbreak of a strain of multiple drug resistant tuberculosis (TB) that eventually claimed more than 500 lives.

"Antibiotic resistance is already a public health crisis," said David Wallinga, a physician who is senior scientist and director of the Antibiotic Resistance Project at the non-profit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "Driving this crisis is the overuse of antibiotics, and this is as true in agriculture as it is in human medicine."

The vast majority of antibiotics used by the livestock industry are for healthy animals. Antibiotics are added to livestock feed to increase growth and prevent diseases active in the crowded facilities common to livestock production.

Antibiotics used this way, called "nontherapeutic," are available without a veterinarian's prescription. These are the same drugs - or very similar ones - that are used to treat humans, so their use can cause the growth of antibiotic resistant diseases that threaten human health.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that livestock producers use more than 24 million pounds of nontherapeutic antibiotics each year.

Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of public health, consumer and environmental groups fighting to end the overuse of antibiotics, estimates that only six percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are for sick animals. Eight percent of antibiotic use is for human therapy, while 70 percent goes to healthy animals. This is more than eight times the amount used to treat human illness. (Other uses account for 16 percent.)

Resistant strains of bacteria arising from the agricultural use of antibiotics are passed to humans when people eat undercooked, contaminated meat or other foods contaminated with blood or offal or come into contact with waste produced by livestock animals.

U.S. lags
Many consumer and public health groups in the U.S., including the American Medical Association, have called for a ban on the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production. But despite the outcry, the U.S. lags behind many other countries in efforts to protect the usefulness of antibiotics.

In 1997, the World Health Organization recommended that human antibiotics that are important to human health not be used on healthy livestock. The European Union banned the feeding of many antibiotics to healthy animals in 1998. Sweden and Denmark have banned all nonthera-peutic antibiotic use for livestock.

Some U.S. progress
Recent trends in the U.S. indicate that awareness about the threat of antibiotic resistance is slowly increasing. Last fall's terrorist attacks and anthrax threats focused attention on Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat anthrax. Cipro is in a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones which are vital not only to the treatment of anthrax, but also to the treatment of Campylobacter infections, a common cause of food poisoning.

Since 1995, when fluoroquinolones were approved for use in the treatment of sick chickens, antibiotic resistance to Campylobacter bacteria has increased from one percent of cases being resistant to 14 percent currently. This dramatic rise prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to propose a ban last year on the use of the drugs in poultry production.

Abbott Laboratories, one of the producers of Baytril, a Cipro-related drug used on chickens, agreed to stop selling Baytril to poultry producers. Bayer, the other producer of the drug, refused to do so, and has gone to court to block the proposed ban.

In February of this year, three large poultry producers, Tyson, Perdue, and Foster, announced that they have reduced their use of antibiotics that are important to human health care, including fluoroquinolones.

"The poultry industry is moving in the right direction, but they've still got a way to go," says Wallinga. He said that part of the problem is the lack of government monitoring. "We have no way of knowing whether the reductions are really being enforced."

Earlier this year, McDonald's, Popeye's and Wendy's restaurants announced that they have stopped buying chickens fed with fluoroquinolones. Wallinga said that TGI Friday's now serves hamburgers made only of antibiotic-free beef and the Chipotle chain of Mexican restaurants serves only antibiotic-free pork.

But it may be years until the FDA finalizes a ban on fluoroquinolones. "It is very difficult to remove a drug from the market once it has been approved." said Wallinga. "Bayer has requested an FDA hearing, but that process historically takes between six and 20 years."

What can consumers do to keep antibiotics effective? Buying antibiotic-free meat is a good place to start. Organic meat is always antibiotic-free. The Keep Antibiotics Working (www.keepantibioticsworking.com) website features a guide to antibiotic-free meats and poultry, including a state-by-state listing of restaurants and supermarkets that offer them.

Consumers can also contact their representatives in support of HR 3804, which was introduced February in the House by Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), which would ban the use of medically important antibiotics in healthy livestock within two years.

The bill is supported by the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, among other groups.

Steer clear of food poisoning

By Linda Sherry

The U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world. Nonetheless, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 Americans die each year because of foodborne illnesses.

Whether you prepare most of your meals at home or eat in restaurants, everyone is at risk for food poisoning. Bacteria multiplies rapidly - the higher the count, the more likely it is that you might get sick. Knowing about possible risks can help you avoid becoming ill.

Temperature: Keep your fridge at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to slow the growth of most bacteria. Place a thermometer in your fridge to measure the temperature.

Freezing at zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower will stop bacterial growth but will not kill all bacteria already present.

Leftovers: Cooked foods, such as stews or other foods made with meat, chicken or fish should be put in the refrigerator after being served. Throw out food that has been at room temperature for more than two hours.

Don't sample suspect foods, because even a little can make you sick. Leftovers generally remain safe for three to five days in the fridge. If in doubt, throw it out.

Kitchen sink: Sanitize the drain and/or disposal every few days with a solution of a teaspoon of chlorine bleach in one quart of water. Food particles and moisture make kitchen drains a good place for bacteria growth.

Cutting boards: When you use a cutting board to prepare raw meat, poultry or fish, wash it afterwards with soap and very hot water. For extra protection, soak the clean cutting boards in water with a teaspoon of chlorine bleach per quart.

Produce: Wash all produce under running water before you eat it. Peel the skins on produce that has been treated with waxy coatings.

Animal foods: Don't allow raw meat, poultry or fish to come in contact with foods you will not be cooking thoroughly.

Use a meat thermometer with temperature guidelines for cooking meat and poultry. Test fish using a sharp knife to pull aside the flesh. It should be opaque at the edges and slightly translucent at the center, with flakes beginning to separate. Let the fish stand for a few minutes away from the heat to finish cooking.

When cooked thoroughly, shrimp and lobster should be red with opaque flesh and scallops should be firm with milky white or opaque flesh. Continue to boil clams, mussels and oysters for five minutes after their shells open.

Throw out clams, mussels or oysters if the shells don't open when cooked. After handling raw meats, poultry or fish, wash your hands with soap and hot water.

Eggs: Eating raw eggs can expose you to Salmonella bacteria that can make you ill. Cooking eggs or foods made with raw eggs kills the bacteria. Avoid homemade foods made with raw eggs, such as ice cream, cookie dough, cake batter, mayonnaise, and eggnog. When breaking eggs, place a sheet of old newspaper on the counter to catch any drips. Afterward, just fold up the paper and throw it away. If you want to sample your dough or batter or prepare other foods with raw eggs, consider substituting pasteurized eggs (available in the grocery's dairy case).

Kitchen counters: Clean counters and other kitchen surfaces that come in contact with food with hot water and soap, bleach solution or a sanitizing cleanser. Keep dishcloths and sponges clean and dry. Pop sponges in the microwave to kill bacteria.

Washing dishes: The best ways to wash dishes are to run them through the dishwasher and allow them to air dry, or wash them by hand with hot water and soap and immediately dry them with a clean dishtowel. When hand washing, try to do it within two hours of serving - bacteria can multiply on unwashed plates, pots and cutlery.

Defrosting foods: Thawing meat, poultry and fish products at room temperature can result in bacteria growth. Thaw foods in the refrigerator or the microwave oven or put the package in a water-tight plastic bag submerged in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Foods defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately after thawing.

Marinating: When you marinate meat, poultry or fish, put the food in the fridge - do not leave it at room temperature. Don't eat the marinade after you've added raw meat, poultry or fish. Instead, set some of the marinade aside before you add the raw food.

Seafood: Buy seafood only from dealers who keep their products refrigerated or on ice. When you get home, put the seafood in the refrigerator or freezer immediately.

If you go fishing, follow state and local government advisories about the safety of local catches. If you aren't going to use the fish within two days, freeze it for later use.

Health concerns: People with certain diseases and conditions should never eat raw seafood - only seafood that has been thoroughly cooked. These conditions include liver disease, diabetes, stomach problems, cancer and immune disorders.

For more tips, visit Fight BAC (www.fightbac.org).

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