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Microbes, Not Chemicals,
Are the Major Source of Foodborne Illness

New York, June, 1999 New York, NY, June 1999¬When it comes to fighting the war against foodborne illness, it seems that many Americans have identified the wrong enemy. Contrary to popular belief, the major causes of food-related illness and death are not the much maligned herbicides, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals. "Actually," says University of California, Davis, professor Dean O. Cliver, Ph.D., author of the newly updated report Eating Safely: Avoiding Foodborne Illness, "the primary cause of foodborne illness is naturally occurring pathogens¬disease-producing organisms and their products."

Outbreaks of microbe-associated foodborne illness that have occurred in the United States over the past five years have made American consumers increasingly aware of these naturally occurring threats to food safety. The federal government has collaborated with the American food industry to establish systems to protect the food supply. The so-called Hazards Analysis-Critical Control Points (HACCP) system¬described in Eating Safely¬offers just one example of how this collaboration works. The federal Food Safety Initiative, passed in 1997, aims further to improve the safety of the American food supply. As a result of such efforts, the United States has the safest food supply in the world.

In addition to these recently mandated systems, many other food-processing procedures¬some time-tested, some the fruits of modern technology¬are already in place to preserve and protect the foods destined for America's tables. ACSH Director of Nutrition Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., notes that "Irradiation, pasteurization, canning, and freezing help to prevent tuberculosis and botulism as well as the illnesses that can be traced to Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter contamination."

Professor Cliver observes, however, that "it is important for consumers to understand that absolutely risk-free food cannot exist. Improved sanitation can't remove parasites from fish, for example." Consumers must therefore accept some responsibility for keeping food safe. Such steps as thoroughly cooking food, storing it at appropriate temperatures, preventing cross-contamination from meats and poultry to other foods, and always keeping hands, tools, and kitchen surfaces meticulously clean are essential for maintaining food safety.

Despite the fact that people in the United States spend a smaller proportion of their income on food than do people in any other country, millions of Americans are still undernourished because they cannot afford to buy enough food. "It is likely," says ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, "that any additional changes to our food production system will increase the cost of America's food¬and that may mean that more people will go hungry." Dr. Whelan recommends that "before we consider any such changes, we should carefully evaluate the benefits versus the risks."

Eating Safely: Avoiding foodborne Illness discusses food safety issues from the farm to the table and advises consumers about ways to reduce their risk of foodborne illness.

The complete text of Eating Safely: Avoiding Foodborne Illness may be downloaded from ACSH's website at www.acsh.org. Bound copies may be ordered for $5.00 (price includes postage and handling) from

The American Council on Science and Health
1995 Broadway, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10023-5860

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