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Food Fight: Consider fact vs. fiction with food safety

Is your food safe? Yes, except for fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy, grains and fish. Those can kill you. There’s a reason why diet starts with “die.”

Now that I have your attention, I should explain. I’m alarmed by how nonsense (see above) trumps common sense (see below) when the subject is food safety. Seventy-five percent of us say conflicting information makes it hard to know what’s safe. The confusion is understandable but often unnecessary.

Any frank discussion of food safety begins with an uncomfortable fact: There is no such thing as zero risk. Blame biology. As a natural organism, food is inherently capable of causing harm. Another far more comforting fact is: We are really, really good at keeping harm from happening. For 99.9990596 percent of us, food will not be the cause of our demise. I didn’t make that number up; it’s from the government’s foodborne illness watchdog. Your chances of surviving your next salad, steak or shake are pretty darned high and getting better. Over the past 20 years, lab-verified foodborne infections have declined 20 percent. Yet we seem to be hearing more about outbreaks and recalls. Why?

Improved science allows us to identify microbes that before were unknown. Stricter regulations have raised standards and increased inspection. Data previously collected only locally is now shared globally. And of course, mass media and the social stream assure that no incident goes unnoticed. Still, I would caution against writing off food safety concerns as simply perceptual. The risks, while minimal, are real.

To mitigate those risks, farmers, packers, shippers, processors, warehousers, retailers and regulators are employing new, effective techniques and technologies. Every step of the food chain presents an opportunity for something to go wrong but also an opportunity to ramp up protections.

As consumers, we too have some responsibilities. Studies say many of us lack knowledge about basic food safety measures. Even fewer actually practice them. There’s an easy fix: Spend some time on FoodSafety.gov, which has literally everything you need to know to protect yourself and your family.

Now, about the aforementioned nonsense. The next time you’re told to fear your food, consider the source. And motivation. When someone alerts you to a legitimate food safety risk, that’s a valuable public service. When you’re made to worry needlessly, that’s an advertising strategy. Regrettably, there are marketers whose intent is to make you afraid of their competitors. Their distasteful tactics impugn the wholesomeness of a rival’s foods, denigrate the farmers who raised it and question the character of anyone who consumes it. Ironically, several of these retailers have recently been the subject of recalls, lawsuits and a criminal investigation into, yes, tainted food. Their misfortune, and more importantly that of their customers, is no cause for celebration. But perhaps it is a lesson: If you’re selling food, stuff can go wrong. And that’s equally true whether your brand is “fast and cheap” or “morally superior.”

So, back to the original question: Is food safe? Ultimately, you’ll need to answer that for yourself, because the term “safe” is relative. Personally, I’m confident in what I put on my plate because I’m comfortable with the minimal degree of risk. You may feel otherwise. What we all should agree on is that when the goal is safe food, there is no finish line. Safe can always be safer.

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