Safety of food supply a matter of common sense

July 1, 1993

Safety of food supply a matter of common sense

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CARBONDALE, IL—If terrorists can cause havoc by dropping anthrax-laden letters in the U.S. mail, could they achieve their goals by poisoning the nation’s food supply?

Not likely, says W. David Shoup, dean of the School of Agriculture at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

“The U.S. food supply is the safest in the world,” said Shoup. “There are all kinds of controls in place that are aimed at cutting down on any chemical or bacterial contamination.”

Most of the food consumed in the United States is processed and prepackaged before it reaches the grocery store. “Canned foods and foods that come in sealed containers are quite safe,” Shoup said. “Any conspiracy to tamper with these products would have to come from the inside, and even then, various inspection processes would probably uncover the source.”

For that reason, Stephen D. Ebbs, an assistant professor in SIUC’s Department of Plant Biology and an expert in toxicology, believes chemical contamination of the food supply would be a difficult feat.

“There are a lot of toxic chemicals out there, but the dose is what matters,” said Ebbs, “and any large amount of chemical contamination would probably be readily apparent.

“By using common sense, we can avoid the dangers associated with food contamination. For instance, we know to wash our fresh foods and vegetables and wash our hands before we handle any food.”

Shoup maintains it’s those fresh fruits, vegetables and meats that are the weakest link in the food supply chain.

“If we want to step up the safety system one more notch, we need to make adjustments,” Shoup said. “Irradiation may be one alternative.”

Irradiation involves sterilizing fresh foods by using high heat to kill off bacteria and other microscopic organisms. The practice is common in some states, but not in Illinois.

“It is a rather controversial approach, basically because of the cost involved and the reluctance of consumers to accept the practice,” Shoup said.

“When some people hear ‘irradiation,’ they think nuclear radiation, but that isn’t the case here,” he continued. “We don’t give a second thought to putting our food in the microwave, and irradiation is about the same thing.”

Economically, Shoup tends to believe irradiation may be something we can’t afford to do. “Yes, irradiation is expensive. And some people believe it tends to alter the taste of common foods, but as we look at alternative methods to ensure food safety, we may need to make certain concessions.”

Ebbs noted that chemicals found under the average American kitchen sink pose more of a danger than chemical contamination of food. “But we know, for the most part, how to handle cleaning chemicals and the like,” said Ebbs. “We know not to inhale the vapors and to open a window if the odor is too strong. We know that if we come in contact with chemicals that burn the skin, we need to find a water faucet. It’s just a matter of being aware of the dangers and how to avoid them.”

While some chemicals are harmful to humans, those same chemicals may be beneficial to plant life. “Certain plants thrive in soil contaminated by chemicals such as cyanide and some types of heavy metals, and they actually remove the toxic material from the soil,” Ebbs said. “We are conducting research to find out what types of plants do this the best and how much material can be removed.”

More research is also needed on the effects of irradiation. Shoup is seeking a grant from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to fund further study. “We need to find out more about how irradiation affects food,” Shoup said. “We also need to make it cost effective and more acceptable to the public.”

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