DALLAS — Mad cow disease. Fish tainted with mercury and PCBs. Contaminated green onions from Mexico. Bird flu in ducks and chickens. Is anything safe to eat these days?
Across the nation, many consumers have made adjustments to their grocery lists, opting for organically grown meats and vegetables following recent food-borne illness scares.
Most, however, expressed confidence in the safety of the country’s food supply.
“Mad cow doesn’t bother me,” Ohio State University chemistry professor Barbara Pappas said while stocking up on ground round, steaks and chops at Carfagna’s Specialty Foods in Columbus. “The probability is so remote. A person smoking next to me is more dangerous.”
The most recent food-related problem to hit the United States came last week, when bird flu was found in chickens on a South Texas farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it poses little threat to people and is a different virus than the one that has killed at least 22 people in Asia.
The bird flu scare comes on the heels of the United States’ first reported case of mad cow disease, which was found in a Holstein from Washington state that was slaughtered Dec. 9. People who eat processed beef products tainted by mad cow can develop a deadly brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Then, last month, a scientific study found that farm-raised salmon contain far more potentially cancer-causing pollutants than wild salmon because their feed is contaminated with it.
In November, three people died and more than 600 were sickened after eating tainted green onions at a Pittsburgh area Chi-Chi’s restaurant in the largest single-source hepatitis outbreak in the nation’s history.
Scrutinizing how food is made
The coincidental timing of all these food scares has made some consumers think twice about what they eat.
“I feel like eating fruits and vegetables is definitely safer,” said Cindy Hader of North Richland Hills, Texas. “But it’s a sad situation in our country when people are buying special foods to avoid poisons and toxins.”
Hader, a vegetarian for the past 16 years, said she buys organically grown food whenever possible because of fears over pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified plants.
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Reggie James, director of the Consumers Union’s southwest region, said fears over mad cow and avian flu have encouraged more consumers to scrutinize how their food is manufactured.
“This is a good thing,” he said. “Consumer preference for more wholesomely produced foods could impact food production practices that lead to higher risks and inhumane conditions for animals.”
At the New City Market health food store in Des Moines, Iowa, shoppers who said they’ve always sought organic alternatives were even more confident in their choices now.
“I prefer to know where my food is coming from whenever I can,” shopper Stephanie Weisenbach said. “What’s happened the last few months — it’s just kind of reaffirmed my decisions.”
In Los Angeles, Jasmin Suljic, 27, said he and his girlfriend have been eating less meat and buying more organic produce.
The native of Bosnia said he missed the ease with which he brought fresh milk and produce back home.
“In my country, almost everything was natural. You’d buy milk fresh in the street or at your door,” he said.
Some, like Susan Primm of Nashville, Tenn., think the government could do more, especially in the handling of mass-produced chicken and beef.
“I believe it is important for us to raise animals in a healthy way,” she said after shopping for groceries. “When animals are not respected and not raised in a healthy way, they get sick.”
Surveys since the mad cow case indicate U.S. beef consumption has not fallen.
Safest in the world?
Speed was key in containing the spread of bird flu at the chicken farm in Gonzales County, Texas. All 6,600 birds in the infected flock were killed, and two live-bird markets in Houston were shut down.
The goal of the public health system is to prevent what can be prevented and to quickly contain what can’t, Texas Department of Health spokesman Doug McBride said. “There’s no 100 percent guaranteed risk-free situation,” he said.
After the mad cow case, the USDA doubled its testing for the brain-wasting disease. The scientific study also recommended that farmers change fish feed and urged consumers to buy wild salmon after it was found that farm-raised salmon had more toxins.
Lester Crawford, acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said consumers should feel confident that most of their food is safe to eat.
“The American food supply continues to be among the safest in the world,” he said. Better prevention and education practices, fast response to outbreaks and better research “have all contributed to a safe, wholesome, and nutritious food supply.”
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