Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cause for concern about American food safety?

Last year, thousands of protesters in Korea were trying to block the Lee administration's moves to restart the import of American beef. The move was in direct response to Democrats in the US Senate, namely Max Baucus of Montana, who said that the KORUS FTA would not go forward until progress was made on Koreans buying American beef again.

So President Lee Myungbak opened up the floodgates, leaving a lot of Koreans angry that (a) he got no quid pro quo for his actions, not even a guarantee the FTA would go forward, and/or (b) the move was not done with public health concerns in mind. Of course, many Koreans were eager to find something to pin on 2MB so that the people would rise up and demand his removal, and Mad Cow panic was born.

But are the health concerns about American beef, or a lot of other American products for that matter, so far-fetched? A recent article in the New York Times suggests there may be cause for concern:
After decades of steady progress, the safety of the nation’s food supply has not improved over the past three years, the government reported Thursday. And, it said, in the case of salmonella, the dangerous bacteria recently found in peanuts and pistachios, infections may be creeping upward.
The peanut scare actually managed to eclipse the Chinese health danger du jour, and the last time I went to buy peanut butter, there was a sign in the store assuring customers that the peanut butter they were selling was not from the salmonella-infected sources, as far as they know.

So, how bad is America's food poisoning problem?
Roughly 76 million people in the United States suffer foodborne illnesses each year, 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die, according to C.D.C. estimates. Children younger than 4 are sickened by food more than those in any other age group, but adults over age 50 suffer more hospitalizations and death as a result of food-related infections.
Five thousand deaths per year from the likes of salmonella (above), E. coli (below), trichinosis, etc. Of course, this makes me wonder if this is not par for the course even in advanced countries. Does Korea have a thousand food poisoning deaths every year? Maybe, but I really don't know. From what I've read, however, the bacterial infections come largely from the mass production methods used to produce beef, pork, and poultry. Fecal matter found in runoff from massive livestock farms can end up in the produce supply.

Of course, feeding 300 million people is no easy task, and I can't pretend to have the answers. But I'm pretty sure it involves more regulation, not voluntary self-analysis by food producers, as favored by the Bush administration.


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