A Growing Health Hazard in Our Food Supply
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A Growing Health Hazard in Our Food Supply

How healthy is your food, really?

Today, the world eats at one big global dining-room table. The food on our plates now comes to us not just from our own fertile fields, but from countries around the world. And indeed, the percentage of fresh produce the U.S. is importing today from abroad is growing by leaps and bounds.

In a lot of ways this is a wonderful thing. It helps bolster the economies of the developing countries we import from. It allows us to have all manner of produce year-round, not just when it's in season here. And it even occasionally introduces the American palate to specialty produce or flavors of different countries, creating a potential gateway to an appreciation of their cultures. There is, however, a frightening flaw in our system: Imported produce is three times as likely as domestic produce to be infected with harmful pathogens that may sicken and even kill.

Why? Many of the developing countries we import from don't employ the same safety methods as our domestic growers and handlers in food growing and handling. While domestically grown produce is not 100 percent immune from infection, there is a vigorous system of safeguards in place. But the produce we are eating in greater percentages from abroad is grown and processed in countries where water purification and sanitary standards may be poor -- a recipe for brewing deadly germs.

Our government, in the form of the USDA, has long been legally empowered to screen the meat that travels to our dinner plates, regardless of whether the plant is in Texas or in Australia. Countries selling beef to U.S. consumers must adhere to the standards we set for meat safety, or we don't do business with them.

However, contemplate the fact that we have not empowered the FDA, which oversees produce, at anywhere near the same level. The FDA can inspect produce only at the border, and apart from the problem of inspectors being outpaced by the increasing amount of produce coming in, this border patrol is little better than a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. By the time produce gets that far, it may already have been contaminated with viruses that are stealthy killers. A recent outbreak of hepatitis A, for instance, which sickened more than 600 Americans and killed three, could have been eliminated only by policing at the farm level.

To protect our fruit and vegetable supply, we must insist that foreign growers who want to sell their produce in the U.S. adopt, enforce, and certify that the proper food-safety programs are in place. American retailers should refuse to profit from any importers that do not cooperate. And if U.S. interests own the farms abroad, they ought to be required to farm there using the same standards followed here.

Initiatives in Congress to address this have been reinvigorated, ironically, by the September 11th terrorist attacks, because it awakened our attention to possible bioterrorist acts at our borders. That's terribly important, of course, but meanwhile, let's not forget that Mother Nature can wreak plenty of havoc of her own, and protecting against this requires a completely different kind of search- and-destroy effort. This staff editorial was originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, May 2004.