What Are We Doing to Our Food?

MAKING changes to our food is not a new idea. In fact, for generations man has been skilled at altering foods. Careful breeding techniques have resulted in many new varieties of crops, cattle, and sheep. Indeed, a representative of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stated that “virtually every food you buy has been altered by traditional breeding.”

Breeding is not the only way to alter food. The food industry has developed many procedures to treat and process food, whether to enhance its flavor or color or to standardize and preserve it. People are accustomed to eating food that has been altered in one way or another.

But a growing number of consumers are alarmed at what is now being done to our food. Why? Some fear that modern techniques presently in use are compromising the safety of food. Is this alarm justified? Let us examine three areas of concern. *

Hormones and Antibiotics

Since the 1950’s, small doses of antibiotics have been added to the feed of poultry, pigs, and cattle in some places. The purpose is to lower the risk of disease, especially where animals  are kept together in close quarters. In some lands hormones are also added to animal feed to speed up animal growth. Hormones and antibiotics are said to protect animals against infection and to make intensive farming more profitable, with benefit to the consumer in the form of lower prices.

So far so good. But does meat from animals that are fed these additives carry any risk to the consumer? A report by the Economic and Social Committee of the European Communities concluded that there is a chance that bacteria will survive the antibiotics and be passed on to the consumer. “Some of these bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, may be a direct cause of severe human diseases via the food chain,” the report found. Furthermore, what if the food chain contains not only bacteria but also residues of antibiotics? Fears have been raised that as a result, germs causing diseases in humans could gradually develop a resistance to antibiotics.

What about hormone-treated meat? A professor in Munich, Germany, Dr. Heinrich Karg, comments: “All experts agree that meat from hormone-treated animals is not harmful to health, provided that the substances are administered in accordance with the guidelines.” However, the newspaper Die Woche reports that on the issue of the safety of meat from hormone-fed animals, “for the past 15 years, researchers have been unable to agree upon a common viewpoint.” And in France the question of hormones in meat has been answered with a resounding ‘No! Hormones should not be used!’ Clearly, the controversy is far from resolved.

Irradiated Foods

Since trials started in Sweden in 1916, at least 39 lands have approved the practice of exposing such foodstuffs as potatoes, corn, fruit, and meat to low levels of radiation. Why? Irradiation is said to kill most bacteria, insects, and parasites, thereby reducing the consumer’s risk of contracting foodborne disease. It also increases the shelf life of the product.

Of course, experts say that ideally, the food we eat should be clean and fresh. But who takes the time to prepare fresh food regularly? “Ten minutes for breakfast and fifteen minutes for lunch and supper” is, according to Test magazine, the length of time the average person spends for meals. Not surprisingly, then, many consumers prefer food that is ready to eat and has a long shelf life. But are irradiated foods safe?

In 1999 the World Health Organization published a study carried out by an international panel of experts. They concluded that irradiated food “is both safe to consume and nutritionally adequate.” Supporters compare the irradiating of food to the sterilizing of medical bandages—also done by irradiation—or to the passing of luggage through an electronic scanner at the airport. Critics, however, insist that irradiation reduces the  natural goodness of food and may involve risks that are as yet unknown.

Genetically Modified Foods

Geneticists have for some time been able to transfer a gene from the DNA of one organism into the DNA of another within the same species. Today, however, geneticists can go much further. For example, there are strawberries and tomatoes that have been modified with a gene taken from a fish, making them less sensitive to low temperatures.

Much has been said both for and against genetically modified (GM) foods. * Proponents say that this type of biotechnology is more predictable and controllable than traditional methods of plant breeding, that it will increase crop yields and reduce human starvation. But are GM foods safe to eat?

A report on the subject was prepared by a team of scientists representing academies in England and the United States as well as Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and other nations of the developing world. Published in July 2000, the report stated: “To date, over 30 million hectares [70 million acres] of transgenic [GM] crops have been grown and no human health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of transgenic crops or their products have been identified.” In some quarters GM products are held to be as safe as conventional foods.

Elsewhere, though, there is widespread uncertainty. In Austria, Britain, and France, GM foods are viewed with mistrust by some. A Dutch politician said of GM foods: “There are certain types of food we simply don’t like.” Critics of such food also point to ethical questions and to possible dangers to the environment.

Some scientists feel that these are early days for GM food and that more testing ought to be done on the possible risks to consumers. For instance, the British Medical Association feels that genetic engineering promises great benefits for the population. Yet, it states that some areas of concern—such as the question of allergic reactions to GM foods—mean that “further research is needed.”

Making Balanced Personal Choices

In some lands as much as 80 percent of the food eaten is processed. Often additives are used to intensify or standardize flavor and color, as well as to lengthen shelf life. In fact, one reference work notes that “many modern products, such as low-calorie, snack, and ready-to-eat convenience foods, would not be possible without food additives.” Such foods are also more likely to contain genetically modified ingredients.

 For years agriculture worldwide has depended upon practices that many people view as harmful. The use of toxic pesticides is just one example. Moreover, the food industry has for some time been using additives that may have caused allergic reactions in some consumers. Are new food technologies significantly more hazardous than these practices? Even experts cannot agree. In fact, weighty scientific reports support opposite sides of the argument and seem to help polarize opinion.

Because they view high-tech foods as hard to avoid or because they view other concerns as more pressing, many people today decide not to worry about the matter. Others, though, are quite concerned. What can you do if you and your family feel uncertain about eating processed foods that seem overly complicated by modern technology? There are practical steps you may choose to take, some of which are discussed in the following article. First, though, it may be wise to make sure that we have a balanced outlook on the issue.

Food safety is like health. There is no current way to achieve perfection. According to the German magazine natur & kosmos, even among people who are known to take the utmost care in the selection and preparation of food, nutrition is always a compromise. What is beneficial to one can harm another. Is it not wise, then, to cultivate a balanced attitude and avoid extremes?

Of course, the Bible does not tell us what decision to make regarding today’s high-tech foods. But it does teach us about a quality to cultivate that will help us in this matter. Philippians 4:5 says: “Let your reasonableness become known to all men.” Reasonableness can help us to make balanced decisions and avoid extremes. It can hold us back from dictating to others what they should or should not do in the matter. And it can keep us out of pointless, divisive debates with those whose thinking on the subject may differ from our own.

It must be admitted, though, that many of the hazards connected with food are not so controversial. What are some of these, and what safety precautions can you take?


^ par. 4 What we eat is largely a matter of personal preference. Awake! does not make recommendations as to eating or abstaining from the various foods discussed herein, regardless of the technologies used in their preparation. These articles are intended to inform readers of the facts as they are currently known.

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Is the consumer affected by hormones and antibiotics fed to cattle?

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It is wise to read the labels on food carefully

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There are advantages to purchasing fresh food regularly