Enjoy your hamburger

U.S. food supply is safe

August 30, 2001|By JUAN N. GUERRERO, Area livestock adviser, University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension

The European Community and some Asian nations have long refused to import many U.S. food products.

The claim is the U.S. food supply is unsafe. The use of genetically modified crops, or GMOs, antibiotics in animal feed and hormones in U.S. livestock are the principal barriers to free trade with the EC.

Many in U.S. agriculture believe the EC argument regarding the wholesomeness of U.S. food is trade protectionism rather than a valid scientific issue. Were the claims of the EC (and some Americans) true, the safety of the U.S. food supply would indeed be suspicious. The rate of illness caused by food-borne pathogens and residues would certainly be rampant if the U.S. food supply was unsafe.

In the U.S., people do become ill because of food-borne pathogens, and unfortunately some individuals die. But is the incidence of illness caused by food-borne pathogens in the U.S. greater than the rest of world? The simple answer is NO. The U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, even if the risk of getting sick from eating bad food is not zero.


What are the measures taken in the U.S. to ensure the wholesomeness of the food supply? The U.S. government has three agencies that ensure food safety — the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. An exception is the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is responsible for seafood safety. All the states also have health departments.

The EC is upset that GMOs are permissible in U.S. agriculture. What is the mechanism used by the federal government to ensure GMOs are safe? The EPA ensures the new crop will not endanger the environment.

Will a crop that is resistant to insects or that requires less herbicide be harmful to birds or other insects? The EPA ensures a GMO will not harm the environment.

Will a crop with "new" genes be dangerous to humans? The FDA ensures the GMO will not increase food allergies or otherwise increase human illness.

Private companies pay the government all the regulatory costs in the GMO-approval process. The private companies must provide the government with a laboratory procedure to detect the presence of harmful substances in GMOs. The approval process for GMOs is lengthy and costly.

In the U.S. we have been using GMOs for years, with the only perceivable outcome being the net decrease in the use of pesticides in U.S. agriculture.

The EC also is upset about the U.S. use of antibiotics and hormones in animal feed. Antibiotics and hormones are used to improve livestock weight gain and make meat cheaper.

Estradiol, progesterone and testosterone are naturally occurring hormones produced by every human throughout our lifetime. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that the residual hormone left in meat from hormone-treated livestock is no greater than the

normally occurring concentration of hormones produced by our own bodies.

Subtherapeutic antibiotic doses are given to livestock to improve weight gain. These antibiotics reduce the incidence of liver abscesses, which often can attain rates of 33 percent in fed cattle. The National Academy of Sciences, the official scientific consultants to Congress, were unable to find any scientific evidence that subtherapeutic antibiotic use is animal feed is hazardous to human health.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA regularly samples meat for residues of antibiotics, pesticides and industrial chemicals. The tolerances established for allowable residues contain a safety factor of between 100 to 2,000 times greater than the residue levels detected in laboratory animals.

If residues are detected in meats, whole lots of meat are condemned. Guilty parties, those who did not adhere to the legal use of these products, may be fined or imprisoned.

The FSIS cannot sample every pound of meat produced in the U.S. Random samples from a statistically valid sampling procedure are used to detect residues. Unfortunately, even with the great efforts taken by the U.S. government to detect residues in meat, some infinitesimally small amount of residues will get through to the consumers.

Zero risk is simply not feasible nor practical. We do the best we can do.

Go ahead and enjoy your steak, hamburger, glass of milk, pork chop, chicken sandwich or slice of pizza; the food supply in the U.S. is safe and wholesome. Perhaps the only thing wrong about the U.S. food supply is that it is too abundant and too cheap. Obesity is rampant in the U.S., but that is another story.

The Cooperative Extension serves all residents of the Imperial Valley.

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