That’s how one audience member described today’s presentation about the safety of our food supply. An expert panel discussed the issue at this morning's session on “Contaminants in our Food Supply: Persistent Gaps in Monitoring, Assessment and Control of Contamination” and offered solutions to the problem as well as tips to better protect the food we consume.
The picture the panel presented was generally grim. While our food supply is vulnerable to pesticide and chemical exposures, the government’s response is outdated and inadequate, they said. One in six Americans gets sick from food-borne illness and nearly 3,000 die each year as a result. While threats from imported produce are increasing, monitoring and enforcement of safety standards lag. And even if food is produced safely, transport and storing processes contribute toxins that leave the most vulnerable in our population at risk.
But there is hope and there are some solutions. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, which aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. It’s a prevention-oriented approach that also tightens inspection and compliance regulations.
“We overhauled the food safety system for the first time in 70 years,” said Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group. “Progress will be made. But there’s still unfinished business. Meat and poultry laws haven’t been updated in decades, and food additive laws haven’t been updated since 1958.”
Session presenter Karen Wong, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studied flaws in the FDA assessment of Gulf Coast seafood after the catastrophic BP oil spill. She found the FDA analyses, particularly for detecting polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are inadequate to protect the health of those who consume shrimp and oysters from the Gulf Coast. PAHs are a group of more than a hundred different chemicals, many of which have been proven to be carcinogenic. PAHs may increase health risks for children and the developing fetus, cause genetic damage to the fetus and contribute to low birthweights. For example, during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, FDA estimated it would take 10 years until PAHs would no longer be detectable in the water. But 13 years later, there were still detectable levels of PAH, Wong said.
“The FDA should update its risk assessment methods,” she told session attendees.
She suggested federal agencies better target their health advisories to give people more information. Lastly, she advised consumers exercise caution when eating seafood.
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said more attention should be paid to imported produce, which is often contaminated with illegal pest residue.
“We see a pattern of repeat violations," Rotkin-Ellman said of a study conducted between 2004 and 2008. "The same violations are found increasing every year.”
Guatemalan peas, for example, continually show up on a list of vegetables with high violation rates, she said.
Even though there is ample evidence and reason for concern, FDA is not testing for some pesticides, Rotkin-Ellman said. Health risks associated with pesticides include toxicity at acute and low levels, cancer and reproductive development toxicity, especially during the early stages of life. In addition to improving and updating FDA testing methods of pesticides, she recommends an outreach program to educate growers on the harms of pesticides.
“It’s not easy to figure out what pesticides are used in what, even for experts in the field,” she said. “We also need education at the federal level.”
What does all this mean for the average consumer at home? The experts say buying organic produce may reduce exposure to some chemicals, but not all. Washing leafy greens, even pre-washed greens, may help a little. Finally, be an informed consumer. Rotkin-Ellman suggested checking out whatsonmyfood.org for more information.
“The point is not to scare people, but to point out gaps,” she said.