One of the dirtiest secrets of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is that it inspects almost no food.
The FDA inspected only 6 percent of domestic food producers and a miniscule 0.4 percent of food importers in 2011. So the vast majority of food producers either police themselves – often with for-hire auditors whose reports are kept secret – or there is no oversight at all.
It’s only after a serious problem emerges – often after people have died – that governmental agencies take action. The consequences are shocking.
Each year, foodborne disease in the United States:
- Sickens 48 million people.
- Hospitalizes 128,000 people.
- Kills 3,000 people.
Outbreaks of foodborne disease are increasingly common. In 2005, the FDA issued two recalls of fruits and vegetables. In 2010, there were 37.
The year 2011 saw the worst outbreak of foodborne disease in a century. Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from a single Colorado farm sickened 147 people in 28 states and killed 33 people. Other serious outbreaks in 2011 were traced to bacteria-contaminated ground turkey and papaya.
Foodborne illnesses are most likely to infect and kill people with underdeveloped or weakened immune systems, such as young children and the elderly.
Avoid Fish from China
Foreign producers often have little incentive to make sure their food is free of illness-causing bacteria. Today, about 20 percent of U.S. food is imported.
Which countries are most responsible for exporting tainted food to the U.S.?
“It depends on the food,” says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, tells Newsmax Health. “Some 90 percent of our fish and seafood is imported, mostly from southeast Asian countries that don’t always use the best sanitary practices.”
For example, one of the most popular fishes consumed in the U.S. – tilapia – often comes from fish farms in China. “These fish are frequently fed raw manure, which is associated with health issues such as salmonella bacteria,” Dr. Doyle says.
For many years, China also tolerated producers who added a chemical called melamine to their food products. Melamine artificially inflates the level of protein in the fish, which increases its monetary value. But it also sickened hundreds of thousands of children worldwide.
Even though the Chinese government finally banned the use of melamine in food products, the FDA recently issued six import rejections of soy protein from China because it was contaminated with melamine, according to Dr. Doyle.
Mexico’s Mixed Record
In the U.S., imports account for more than 50 percent of fruit and more than 20 percent of vegetables. Mexico has largely replaced California as the nation’s “salad bowl.” That’s not necessarily bad, says Dr. Doyle.
“Not all produce coming out Mexico is unsafe because we have good (U.S.-based) producers down there who have good control over their fields and the irrigation water that is used. But we do know there are some issues with the food that is produced there.”
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Much of Mexico’s produce is grown in areas where there is little control over irrigation water. “It’s fertilized with water that comes from big cities such as Mexico City where they don’t treat the human sewage that goes into the rivers,” Dr. Doyle says.
Don’t eat raw sprouts. Although food hazards abound, experts agree that the single most dangerous food of all is raw sprouts. “We’ve had many outbreaks associated with raw sprouts,” says Dr. Doyle, who strongly recommends doing as Asians do, and cooking sprouts before eating them.
Don’t eat raw meat or nuts. “Thoroughly cook meats,” he says. “Hamburger (a frequent source of infection) is supposed to be cooked to 165 degrees.” In restaurants, it’s best to order your hamburgers medium-well, because bacteria can be mixed throughout the patty. Steak, on the other hand, can be safely ordered medium because any bacterial contamination is most likely to be on the surface.
Wash hands after handling meat or produce. “Even lettuce, including lettuce that’s grown here in the U.S., may contain bacteria, typically on the outer leaves,” said Dr. Doyle. “So you should remove the outer leaves, then wash your hands because you’ve just touched potentially contaminated outer leaves, and then wash the inner leaves.”
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