by Gerri Willis
Is your food safe? That's a question I wish more people were asking. The truth is that the meat, dairy and vegetables you buy at the grocery store may carry bacteria or some other food contaminant.
The question is particularly relevant in the wake of West Coast chicken processor Foster Farm's products sickening nearly 300 people in 17 states earlier this fall. The outbreak is the second of the year for Foster Farms. While the USDA originally threatened to shut down three of the plants cited in the outbreak, regulators backed off after the producer agreed to make safety changes. Food safety experts are paying particular attention to this outbreak because it involves an especially serious salmonella bacteria called Heidelberg, which is more likely to land victims in the hospital. Worse, several of the strains of this bacteria have been found resistant to antibiotics. Foster Farms has said that consumers' should protect themselves by handling chicken safely. And, while some say that the government shutdown is what caused the Foster Farms' problem to gain national attention, the truth is that the company has repeatedly run afoul of safety standards.
And, it's not just chicken. In a recent test Consumer Reports found that half of the ground turkey they bought from retailers across the country tested positive for fecal bacteria, others contained germs like salmonella and staphylococcus.
Experts say the problem could get worse before it gets better. Just recently the USDA voted to allow four Chinese processing plants to export cooked chicken to the U.S. Initially, these processors will only be allowed to export chicken products made from birds that were raised in the U.S. and Canada. But Food & Water Watch's Patty Lovera says the USDA has set up a slippery slope in which the rule could eventually be changed to allow Chinese-origin poultry to come here. Lovera describes the food safety system in China as inadequate. "Even the government of China admits they have a lot of work to do. They are not anywhere near being able to enforce the regulations that they have." Consumers should watch for country of origin labeling when shopping, just keep in mind that the law doesn't apply to "processed" versions of those foods or food served in restaurants.
In this country little more than 2 percent of imported food is inspected. which is becoming an increasing proportion of food that is sold in this country. What's more, the cost of physically inspecting or sampling food that is imported is $170 per field exam on average and approximately $2,800 per sample analyzed.