The U.S. food supply has often been described as “the safest in the world.” The truth in such claims has been challenged1 and raises the question: What does it mean for food to be “safe”?
Food safety involves protecting the food supply from contamination and—if that fails—preventing people from getting sick as a result of eating contaminated food. Food supplies are susceptible to many different types of contaminants, including:
- Pathogens, which are disease-causing organisms, such as certain bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
- Biological toxins, such as those produced by some algae, fungi, and bacteria.
- Naturally occurring chemicals, such as arsenic, that are present at very low levels in most soils.
- Chemicals from human activities, such as pesticides used in agriculture and heavy metals from coal-fired power plants.
Pathogens and biological toxins in food generally cause illness within hours or days of exposure. Most chemical contaminants in food are associated with health conditions such as cancer that develop gradually and persist over time, usually as a result of longer-term, repeated exposures.
Food can be contaminated at multiple points along the supply chain, including during production, processing, transport, storage, preparation, and handling. Keeping food safe from contamination is a complex challenge that requires vigilance on the part of industries, consumers, and government agencies.
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Foodborne illness, or “food poisoning,” is the result of eating food contaminated with pathogens (disease-causing organisms) or biological toxins. The common symptoms of foodborne illness, vomiting and diarrhea, are thought to be evolutionary defense mechanisms designed to expel—sometimes violently—these foreign invaders.2
Each year, there are an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S., affecting one in six Americans. More serious cases—around 128,000 per year—require hospitalization, and roughly 3,000 are fatal.3 Infants, young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness.4
How does food become contaminated with pathogens?
Many of the bacterial pathogens responsible for foodborne illness, such as Salmonella and E. coli, live in the guts of animals, and may be passed in the animals’ manure. Pathogens in manure can contaminate food crops in several ways, for example:
- when manure is applied as a fertilizer to produce fields,5
- if manure is transported by runoff onto nearby produce fields,5 or
- if manure contaminates water sources used for irrigating produce fields.5,6
The age-old practice of applying manure to crop fields is an important method of cycling nutrients and organic matter. Farmers following agroecological methods can take steps to reduce pathogens in manure, such as composting it or applying it several months before planting.7 Industrial meat, dairy, or egg operations, however, generate manure in such large quantities that it becomes difficult to safely manage. Research has also shown that manure from these operations may contain more dangerous, antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens,8–12 in addition to a range of chemical contaminants.12
Further down the supply chain, at slaughtering facilities, employees and food safety inspectors must take steps to prevent and respond to cases when the animals’ guts are accidentally severed, spilling the pathogen-rich contents and potentially contaminating entire batches of meat.
Food can also become contaminated in restaurants and home kitchens. Norovirus, for example—the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S.3—is easily spread through food, drinks, or utensils that were handled by infected people. Raw meat and eggs frequently harbor pathogens, which can be transferred to other foods through cutting boards, countertops, and other surfaces. To help prevent foodborne illness, people who prepare or handle food should wash their hands, disinfect surfaces, keep raw meat separate from other foods, thoroughly cook meat and eggs, and refrigerate or freeze perishable foods to slow the growth of pathogens.13
Chemical contaminants in food
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How do harmful chemicals wind up in our food?
Natural gas fracking, mining, coal burning, and plastics manufacturing are just a few of the industrial activities that release chemicals into our environment. Many are known to be harmful, while the health effects of thousands of others are not yet understood. Because these chemicals are present in air, water, and soil, they can make their way into our food supply.
Some contaminants, such as arsenic in poultry meat,18 may be present in food as an indirect result of industry practices—feeding certain drugs to animals, for example. Other harmful chemicals, such as caramel color in soft drinks,19 are present in food or beverages because manufacturers add them directly to the product.
Pesticide use is another contributor to chemical contamination of food. DDT, for example, was among the earliest synthetic chemicals to be used as an insecticide. First used during World War II to combat malaria and other insect-borne diseases,20 DDT’s initial success led to its being promoted as the simple solution to any insect problem. Hailed as the “atomic bomb of the insect world”,21 DDT quickly became widely used in controlling agricultural, household, and garden pests.22
In her book Silent Spring, biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson drew public attention to evidence that DDT was impacting wildlife and putting human health at risk. Despite strong opposition from the pesticide industry, in 1972 the U.S. government banned the use of DDT.22,23
Almost 30 years after the ban, a study identified DDT, along with several other pesticides and industrial chemicals, as among the most problematic chemical contaminants in the U.S. food supply, based on their toxicity and the amounts of them Americans consume in food. The lion’s share of exposure to these chemicals is through seafood, beef, and other animal products.24 DDT is among many synthetic chemicals that persist in the environment (they last many years before breaking down) and accumulate in the tissues of animals.
Fruits and vegetables may also contain chemical residues, particularly if they were grown using pesticides25 or in contaminated soil.26 Consumers can reduce their pesticide exposure by washing produce thoroughly, peeling root vegetables, or choosing organic varieties. Eating nonorganic fruits and vegetables, however, is recommended over not eating them at all—the health benefits of diets rich in fruits and vegetables generally outweigh the risks from pesticides.
The following list of suggested resources is intended as a starting point for further exploration, and is not in any way comprehensive. Some materials may not reflect the views of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
- Keeping Our Food Safe (lesson plan). FoodSpan. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
- Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity (textbook). Neff RN (editor). Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. 2014.
Reports and other documents
- A Literature Review of the Risks and Benefits of Consuming Raw and Pasteurized Cow's Milk. Davis BJK, Li CX, Nachman KE. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. 2014.
- Plant Food Safety Issues: Linking Production Agriculture with One Health. National Academy of Sciences. 2012.
- The Vegetable-Industrial Complex (magazine article). Michael Pollan. The New York Times. 2006.
- Food Safety News (website).
Academic journal articles
- Caramel Color in Soft Drinks and Exposure to 4-Methylimidazole: A Quantitative Risk Assessment (open access). Smith TJS, Wolfson JA, et al. PLOS One. 2015.
- Pharmaceuticals and personal care products in chicken meat and other food animal products: A market-based pilot study (requires subscription). Baron PA, Love DC, Nachman KE. Science of the Total Environment. 2014.
- Public Health Responses to Arsenic in Rice and Other Foods (requires subscription). Navas-Acien A, Nachman K. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2013.
- Roxarsone, Inorganic Arsenic, and Other Arsenic Species in Chicken: A U.S.-Based Market Basket Sample (open access). Nachman KE, Baron PA, Raber G, et al. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2013.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) in U.S. food (open access). Schecter A, Malik N, et al. Environmental Science and Technology. 2010.
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2. Nesse RM, Williams GC. Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine. Random House; 2012.
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7. University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. Guidelines for Using Animal Manures and Manure-Based Composts in the Garden. 2013. https://extension.unh.edu/resources/files/Resource002114_Rep3119.pdf.
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19. Smith TJS, Wolfson JA, Jiao D, et al. Caramel Color in Soft Drinks and Exposure to 4-Methylimidazole: A Quantitative Risk Assessment. PLoS One. 2015;10(2).
20. National Pesticide Information Center. DDT Technical Fact Sheet. 2000. http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/ddttech.pdf.
21. Dumanoski D. The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth. New York: Random House; 2009.
22. The Pesticide Action Network. The DDT Story. 2013. http://www.panna.org/issues/persistent-poisons/the-ddt-story.
23. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. DDT - A Brief History and Status. 2012. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/chemicals/ddt-brief-history-status.htm.
24. Dougherty C. Dietary Exposures to Food Contaminants across the United States. Environ Res. 2000;84(2):170-185.
25. Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2013 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. 2013. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php.
26. Kessler R. Urban gardening: managing the risks of contaminated soil. Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(11-12).
27. UNEP Chemicals Branch. The Global Atmospheric Mercury Assessment: Sources, Emissions and Transport. Geneva, Switzerland; 2008.
28. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury: Basic Information. 2013. http://www.epa.gov/hg/about.htm.
29. Johnson R, Hanrahan CE. The U.S.-EU Beef Hormone Dispute. 2010.
30. California Breast Cancer Research Program. Identifying Gaps in Breast Cancer Research. 2007.
31. Allen W. The War on Bugs. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company; 2008.
32. Carson R. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1962.