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Contaminations raise the question: Is food safe?

raspberry inspeciton

Most of the time is the answer

August 20, 1997
Web posted at: 7:39 p.m. EDT (2339 GMT)

From Health Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- What's gotten into the American food supply lately?

This year alone, there has been E. coli bacteria in hamburgers and alfalfa sprouts, Hepatitis A in strawberries, and a parasite called cyclospora in raspberries.

These contaminations not only give the American consumer pause when it comes to eating such things, it also makes one wonder just how safe food is.

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen reports
icon 1 min. 55 sec. VXtreme video

Americans two or three generations back generally ate only food that was grown nearby. If something went wrong, "it went wrong locally," said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The food supply that our grandparents ate was really different from the food supply we're eating now," he said.

"It was a local problem with a local solution," he said. "Our food comes from all over the country and, indeed, from all over the world."

As food goes, so go contaminants


When something went wrong with beef at the Hudson Foods plant in Columbus, Nebraska, this summer, it made people sick in Colorado. Bad strawberries from Mexico gave people food poisoning in Michigan. Contaminated raspberries from Guatemala affected people in New York.

In other words, as food travels around the globe, so do bacteria and pesticides and, inevitably, food poisoning.

"There are some new disease-causing agents like E. coli that just didn't seem to cause much disease a generation ago," Tauxe said.

What can be done about it? One answer is technology.

Congress agreed this year to spend money on a better early-warning system for food poisoning. The quicker scientists can figure out what's making people sick, the quicker they can recall the contaminated foods.

And technology does exist to kill many food-borne contaminants. It's called irradiation. But many companies are reluctant to use it, fearing that consumers won't buy a product with a label that says it has been exposed to radiation.

No food is risk-free

There are also low-tech solutions such as improved sanitation at slaughterhouses and more thorough cooking by consumers.

Produce is a different story. You don't cook lettuce, and washing it won't kill the E. coli bacteria.

Which brings up a point many consumers don't want to hear: while most food seems to be safe, there is no such thing as risk-free food, even when you're eating something as innocent as a strawberry or an alfalfa sprout.

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