Food has been making the news lately.
Whether it’s California’s voting on labeling genetically modified (GMO) foods or the recent study on organic food’s nutritional benefits or lack thereof of the local food movement, food has become a topic of conversation at the dinner table.
However, experts are still split on what constitutes food safety.
Carl Winter, a Cooperative Extension food toxicologist and director of the FoodSafe program at the University of California – Davis, is concerned that, by worrying about things like hormones and pesticides, people may be taking their “eyes off the ball” on more important concerns.
“These are debates on theoretical risks,” Winter said.
But that theoretical risk has people concerned. Especially in the case of GMOs, opponents argue that there is no evidence to support its safety. Although the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Academy of Sciences say there is no risk, others cite studies done on mice and rats that show higher rates of allergies and tumors.
University of Pennsylvania sophomore Harvey Li, 19, focuses more on health content and price when making food purchases.
“GMOs are pretty low on my list,” Li said. “I don’t look for them.”
As for pesticides, there is evidence available that children who ate conventional food had higher rates of pesticide residues in their urine.
Penn junior Carlos Coto, 20, from Miami, said he is more concerned about calories and health content when making purchases, but “if it’s organic, it’s a bonus.”
Winter emphasized that a worse risk would be people consuming less produce because they won’t substitute conventional varieties when organic ones are out of stock.
“There’s epidemiological evidence that consuming produce, period, is healthy,” he said.
According to the CDC, fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases and are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. Most produce are also low in fat and calories and are very filling. The CDC encourages increased produce consumption for those who wish to lose weight.
The real risk, Winter said, is foodborne illness; there are thousands of deaths and 48 million cases per year of these bacteria, he said. He also presses that most cases are never reported — it only makes the news when there are outbreaks or recalls.
“We need to be vigilant about illness,” Winter said.
The recent Stanford University study on organic foods found no correlation between whether foods were organic and the prevalence of bacteria such as non-drug resistant E. coli strains. It did, however, indicate that conventional foods were 33% more likely to contain microbe strains than their organic counterparts.
But if you’re concerned about foodborne illness, Winter said education is key at all levels, from food production to consumption.
He recommends that consumers wash their hands and the kitchen area to prevent cross-contamination, and to wash produce with water since soap can leave residues. Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator within two hours to prevent micro-organism growth. And meats should be cooked to the correct temperatures with a thermometer.
“Eating is hazardous. Not eating is fatal,” he said.
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