How Safe Is Your Food?

DO YOU eat three meals a day? If so, by the time you are 70 years old, you will have consumed over 75,000 meals. For a typical European, that will mean eating—among other things—some 10,000 eggs, 5,000 loaves of bread, 100 sacks of potatoes, 6 sides of beef, and 2 sheep. Does all that eating amount to a chore? Far from it! How we relish hearing such expressions as “enjoy your meal” or “guten Appetit” or “bon appétit”! The head of a cooking school went so far as to say: “Food is the essence of life.”

Most of the time, we may tend to take it for granted that the food we consume is wholesome and healthful. But if just one of those 75,000 meals were to contain something harmful, we could get seriously ill. Can we be sure that what we eat is safe? These days, more and more people seem to have doubts on that score. In some countries food safety has become a major concern. Why?

Causes of Concern

Each year, foodborne illness affects about 15 percent of the population of Europe. In the early 1980’s, for instance, toxic cooking oil in Spain killed about 1,000 people and made another 20,000 seriously ill. In 1999 the population of Belgium was aghast when it was reported that such items as eggs, poultry, cheese, and butter were possibly contaminated by a poison called dioxin. More recently, Britain’s consumers were horrified—and its beef industry was shattered—when cattle became infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Then there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which required the slaughter and disposal of millions of cows, sheep, pigs, and goats.

Grave though such risks are, there are other factors that worry people when it comes to food. Consumers are troubled by new techniques that are now being used in the growth and processing of foodstuffs. The European Commission wrote in 1998: “Novel technologies like food irradiation and genetic engineering of food crops have caused a lot of controversy.” Do such modern scientific techniques improve our food or adulterate it? And what can we do to increase the safety of our own food?