Eating Scared

Worries go far beyond beef--and an increasingly international food supply is expanding everyone's risk of contamination

If nothing else, the record-setting recall of 25 million pounds of Hudson Foods Inc.'s hamburger meat at the height of barbecue season made Americans acutely aware of the danger of tainted food. But as Americans get ready to stow their grills and charcoal for the winter, concerns about the nation's food supply won't be so easily put to rest. When the Clinton Administration launches a drive to expand free-trade agreements after Labor Day, a new debate over food safety will ensue. With food imports already on the rise--and expanding free-trade pacts smoothing the way for even more--how can the U.S. make sure its food supply is safe?

Some of the debate will be political: As they have in the past, domestic growers and food processors will try to curb competition by calling attention to tainted foreign produce. But food experts and regulators say there's no evidence that imported food is more dangerous than that produced in the U.S. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to worry. Imported foods "are an increasing proportion of the diet and often come from developing countries where food hygiene and basic sanitation are less advanced," warns the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is ringing alarm bells about "emerging" food-borne diseases because of "the globalization of the food supply."

EXOTIC FRUITS. There's no turning back, however. Thanks to recent trade treaties, the U.S. food market is one of the most open in the world. And American consumers are driving the demand for imports by seeking fresh fruits and vegetables year round and experimenting with all sorts of new treats. That has developing nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean scrambling to supply gourmet cheeses and meats, fresh melons, tomatoes, grapes, shrimp, and other shellfish. Meanwhile, the U.S. is opening the door: Argentine beef, banned for 70 years from the U.S. by protectionist legislation, is now being sold again.

In just the past five years, U.S. food imports have doubled, to 30 billion tons, and are expected to keep rising. That presents fresh challenges for regulators. Whether food comes from Nebraska or Central America, the longer the path from farm to table, the more the journey "sets up the potentialto introduce more microorganisms and allow their growth," says Peggy M. Foegeding, an agricultural expert at North Carolina State University. And since only a tiny fraction of imported foods undergo inspection, it's almost impossible to keep a nasty microbe hiding in a head of lettuce from reaching a supermarket or restaurant--or a family dinner table.

U.S. officials are careful not to scapegoat foreign foods. Despite the rapid rise in imports, "food-borne illnesses have not increased anywhere to that degree," says Janice F. Oliver, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. And domestic food producers have worries of their own, notes Sanford A. Miller, former director of the Food & Drug Administration's food-safety office, as the Hudson Foods outbreak shows. "We have problems in the U.S.--maybe not the same as those elsewhere--but they may be equally severe," he says.

Nevertheless, food poisoning--be it from domestic or imported food--is a severe and growing problem in the U.S. More than 250 different diseases have been linked to contaminated food or drink in the U.S. Tainted food causes an estimated 6.5 million to 33 million illnesses and 9,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone, according to a 1994 report from the private Council for Agricultural Science & Technology. And problems are not limited to food poisoning. The total yearly cost of foreign pests and diseases in lost U.S. production and expenses for prevention and control total $41 billion, according to the Agriculture Dept.

Ironically, the growing emphasis on healthy eating may be exposing more Americans to potential problems. Americans are eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and those foods are the top sources of a witches' brew of virulent microbes that cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to renal failure and death. And fresh produce from Latin America is one of the U.S.'s fastest-growing imports. It's nice to have fresh fruit in February. But, says Michael Doyle, head of the Food Science & Technology Dept. at the University of Georgia, consumers must recognize that "in some developing countries, they do use night soil [human feces] for fertilizer, and they do use polluted irrigation water, and that is where problems arise." Case in point: Raspberries imported from Guatemala were the culprit when a nasty food-borne parasite struck hundreds of people in 1996. Tracking the source of contamination is often impossible, even with sophisticated methods such as DNA testing. That's both a domestic and an international problem. Just how a potentially deadly E. coli strain got into the Hudson Foods patties remains unclear. And the dilemma grows when foods come from many sources. Authorities in Minnesota recently tracked a new strain of poisonous E. coli bacteria to a salad bar. But then they reached a dead end. There were so many imported fruits and vegetables among the selections that "we could never tell which one" was the source, says Michael T. Osterholm, chief of the state's Acute Disease Epidemiology Center.

You could try to avoid foreign foods, but you're not likely to succeed. There are no federal country-of-origin labeling requirements, although Congress is considering such labeling on produce and beef. And in restaurants, where time-strapped Americans now consume half their calories, there's no way of telling where ingredients come from.

Beyond lapses in growing and processing procedures in the U.S. and abroad, there are other reasons behind the increase in food-borne microbes. They include increased travel and tourism, reduced immunity because of AIDS, aging of the population in developed nations, and the evolution of pathogens into new and sometimes drug-resistant strains. For example, the nasty bug that caused the recall of the Hudson Foods hamburger, E. coli O157:H7, is believed to be a relatively recent mutation of mild strains.

Foreign producers are understandably defensive. Often, they say, food arrives in the U.S. uncontaminated but is then mishandled in restaurants or homes. Still, to allay concerns in the U.S., authorities in Mexico, which ships 90% of its $4.5 billion in annual food exports to the U.S., are pushing produce exporters to have their operations certified by private U.S. labs. Primus Laboratories in Santa Maria, Calif., inspects a producer's fields, irrigation water, and packing conditions, as well as the bathrooms that workers use.

Mexico recently began shipping avocadoes to the U.S. after an 80-year ban was partially lifted. But only producers who agree to have their orchards inspected by the USDA can take part. Mexico already exports 32 million boxes of mangoes to the U.S. under a program that employs 60 USDA inspectors paid by growers and the Mexican government. U.S. packers are also riding herd on Mexican growers, sending their own people to check production methods. "No reputable shipper is going to put his label on something that will cause him to lose business," says Jerry A. Walzel, executive vice-president for the Texas Produce Assn.

When Congress takes up the Administration's request for "fast-track" authority to negotiate further open trade agreements with Latin America, the issue of food imports will be front and center. The National Farmers Union, for example, opposes extending the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement to the rest of the hemisphere. The group quotes U.S. government statistics showing that imports of beef from Canada and Mexico have skyrocketed since NAFTA, making it harder for American inspectors to monitor beef quality. The new competition also has put a lid on U.S. cattle prices, they concede.

However the fall trade battle turns out, the U.S. will rely increasingly on foreign food supplies. More government monitoring may help eliminate some tainted imports, but the ultimate burden of ensuring that consumers have safe food to buy may fall to the globalized food industry. A top U.S. priority ought to be "educating other countries in improving their own sanitation," says Robin Yeaton Woo, a food-safety expert at Georgetown University in Washington. Meanwhile, she says, "I've sort of written off raspberries for my grandbaby."

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