Clean Air, Clean Water And Clean Food

The recent horror stories are enough to make anyone go off their feed. Tons of hamburger meat laced with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria. Cyclospora parasites in Guatemalan raspberries. Pathogenic microbes in lettuce, milk, apple juice, cheese, chicken--even ice cream. Is it safe to eat anymore, especially all that imported stuff?

Of course, it is. The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world. Despite the alarmist hue and cry, cases of food-borne illnesses aren't rising dramatically. What's more, many of today's food poisonings are caused by improper handling of food at restaurants, stores, or in the home.

This has not stopped some U.S. meat, dairy, and produce companies from using the threat of tainted foreign food to call for trade barriers. As the U.S. food supply has gone global, bringing in fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year, U.S. producers have begun to feel the pinch. Using purported health reasons to protect local markets is an old trick. Remember when the Japanese said their intestines were unique and couldn't absorb American beef? Europeans now complain that genetically altered American soybeans are a hazard. And the U.S. still won't import unpasteurized French Camembert cheese.

Fact is, nearly all imported food is safe. That doesn't mean that the U.S. should accept the myriad stomachaches and 9,000 deaths a year from food poisoning. The Food & Drug Administration has only 700 inspectors and analysts to watch over 53,000 U.S. food-processing plants and billions of tons of imported food. The country needs more. The Agriculture Dept., which oversees meat and poultry, is in better shape. But in the end, inspections will never catch more than a fraction of tainted food. That's why every effort must be made to prevent contamination during production. This would curtail the many food-related illnesses stemming from salmonella and campylobacter on chicken and eggs--diseases that are rare in Japan and Europe.

As the U.S. food supply goes global, higher health and safety standards must be implemented everywhere overseas. American agribusiness has spread throughout Latin America, and consumers have every right to expect these companies to adhere to high standards of safety. To their credit, they usually do, as do most locally owned agribusinesses. But where overseas standards are lax, U.S. officials should step up inspections of food production. It is reasonable for Washington to insist that Guatemalan farmers not use untreated water on their raspberry fields. It is also perfectly reasonable for American, as well as European and Asian consumers, to have access to the world's cornucopia of food.

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