Food Safety Fears on the Rise

FROZEN ORGANIC beef hamburger patties, $9.78/kg. Grade No. 1 organic onions, $2.26. On-the-vine, hothouse organic tomatoes, $11/kg. Eating a hamburger that doesn't load you down with chemicals, priceless. Well, maybe. Some shoppers would just say pricey.

Food Safety Fears on the Rise

FROZEN ORGANIC beef hamburger patties, $9.78/kg. Grade No. 1 organic onions, $2.26. On-the-vine, hothouse organic tomatoes, $11/kg. Eating a hamburger that doesn't load you down with chemicals, priceless. Well, maybe. Some shoppers would just say pricey. Those organic ingredients - when compared to the common ones regrettably seasoned with traces of antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticides - can cost anywhere from 15 to 170 per cent more. But it's come to this, hasn't it? Most Canadians would never accept a two-tiered health-care system, yet that's the direction in which we seem to be heading with our food. Consumers who are at least reasonably well-off can afford the good stuff, while those who are financially strapped make do. As shown by the scares with mad cow disease and tainted farmed salmon, our increasingly industrialized food chain may turn out to be the pitfall that keeps us from what could otherwise be a long, healthy life.

In the early 1900s, socialist author Upton Sinclair's The Jungle brought to light the horrifically unsanitary conditions in Chicago slaughterhouses and packing plants. He described the steam-filled tank rooms with their open vats. Because some of the vat openings were almost level with the shop floor, workers sometimes slipped and fell in. Occasionally, before anyone noticed, the unfortunate soul's remains would re-emerge days later - packaged as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard. In writing his book, Sinclair wanted to draw attention to the inhumane work conditions under which immigrants toiled. Instead, the U.S. public and its legislators were so shocked that Congress passed the federal Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Later, Sinclair famously remarked: "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

What we're seeing in the news lately amounts to a similar blow to the gut. While we've dealt with those century-old problems in our abattoirs, we now have new ones to contend with, and they go well beyond two North American mad cow cases in the past year. The recent study on farmed Atlantic salmon published in the journal Science found high levels of PCBs, dioxins, DDT and other toxins linked to increased risks of cancer and birth defects. Yet this is only one element of a larger problem with food production. Industrialized farming and widespread pollution, critics argue, are the real culprits today. We must rethink how we put food on our tables.

Giant agribusinesses pack together cattle, pigs, chickens and fish by the hundreds and thousands, necessitating the use of germ-fighting antibiotics that we end up swallowing. Studies suggest these ingested drugs can increase the risk of harmful bacteria in humans developing antibiotic resistance. Growth hormones pumped into cattle raise concerns over disruption of our own hormone systems. Our fruit, vegetables, meat and milk are found to contain toxic pesticides in trace amounts. Processed meats are preserved with nitrite and nitrate salts that guard against the bacterial growth that causes botulism, but have been linked to cancer. Trans fatty acids in margarines, shortenings, fast foods and common bakery products increase the risk of heart disease. There are worries about genetically modified food and the incessant push by business to irradiate meat to sterilize it.

It used to be that if you wanted to eat healthy, you'd eat fish. Now, we have to consider whether seafood might not be better considered a potential biohazard. Consider that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns pregnant women, nursing mothers and small children against eating tuna and shellfish on a regular basis. There's too much mercury in them. Health Canada says it sets strict limits on the toxins allowed in the fish we eat, and in conjunction with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, contends that "consuming farmed salmon does not pose a health risk to consumers." Others aren't so sure. "The Canadian government says that arguably we have the safest and best food in the world," notes Herb Barbolet, founder of the FarmFolk/CityFolk Society, a non-profit organization in Vancouver concerned with food, farming, health and the environment. "I think on the whole that's probably correct, but the problems in the food system, nonetheless, are enormous."

Even the water we drink can be tainted in countless ways. Pesticides, industrial chemicals and micro-organisms constantly have to be monitored and kept at bay. Scientists worry about excreted pharmaceutical drugs in the water we drink. Bottled water - the guidelines are outdated - is often no more than filtered tap water. (Health Canada has undertaken a review and expects to toughen rules on, for example, arsenic levels.)

Karen Dodds, director general of Health Canada's health products and food branch, stands by the quality of our food safety systems. She disputes the need to restrict consumption of farmed salmon, as the Science paper recommends. "Levels found in the study were well below our guidelines," notes Dodds. "There is no reason for concern."

What can the consumer do? Andrea Peart, the Ottawa-based director of the health and environment program for the Sierra Club of Canada, says buying organic foods is a start, but not the ultimate answer. "Above all else," counsels Peart, "buy local, whether it's a pig or a tomato." That supports often hard-pressed farmers and helps decentralize food production, she adds. The fruits and vegetables tend to have less pesticide residue, too. "A lot of additional chemicals are applied just in shipments to stop moulding," she notes. "Immediately, by buying from farmers close to home, that's cut out of the equation." Other food-safety options: buy meat products that are raised without antibiotics and growth hormones, and contain no dyes.

Cooking a meal from scratch once in a while, if not regularly, is another not-so-revolutionary activity that many families have strayed from. The food's better than, say, packaged lasagna, whose meat could be the very last and worst scraps taken off the bone. The tomato sauce may be oozing with trans fats, and the cheese is perhaps from factory-farmed animals and thus could contain growth hormones.

Janet Nicol, a high-school teacher in Toronto, has been buying organic products for a decade. When stories about suspect food make the news, Nicol is content in knowing she's on top of the situation and that she and her three children - Emmet, 5, and 18-week-old twins Austin and Myles - are safe. At the same time, the salmon report caused some concern. Because the cost of wild fish is so high, her family eats farm-raised salmon about once a month. Still, Nicol, 38, has taken a wait-and-see approach. "I don't tend to immediately stop just because there's been one report. It's something to follow." She encourages friends to opt for organics whenever possible, but wonders if her own family can maintain its current degree of commitment. "Prices are going down," observes Nicol, "but frankly, I'm going to have three growing boys. We're going to have to cut back on our consumption because it's so much more expensive."

In general, North Americans aren't exactly eager to reach for their wallets at the checkout counter. "We spend less than 10 per cent of our disposable income on food," notes Barbolet. "That's the least that any place in the world spends on food. Because of this, we're getting, basically, fat, salt and sugar - the things that are cheap." If, for example, overweight people needed any more convincing, yet another study earlier this month pointed to obesity as a killer. Published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, the study shows that one in 10 deaths in people aged 20 to 64 years can be blamed on excess weight. Unfortunately, good food costs money, but it at least holds out the lure of better health.

After decades of urban sprawl and loss of farmland, can we revive the family farm? Tom Manley, chairman of the Canadian Organic Growers' Ottawa chapter, thinks we can. Instead of independent farmers selling their grain to distant, industrialized livestock operations as they do today, Manley says farmers could raise and feed their own cattle. "The increase in production in the last 40 years," says Manley, "has largely been done with genetics, breeding and selecting plants and animals to produce more per unit of space or time." Currently, drug- and pesticide-free production lags behind factory farming, Manley adds, because most organic farmers are still learning their craft. "But if you compare experienced, skilful organic farmers to conventional farmers in a similar environment," Manley says, "you'll get very comparable results, if not better."

Austin, Tex.-based Whole Foods Market Inc. bills itself as the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods. It has 149 stores in North America, including a single Canadian outlet that opened in Toronto in 2002. Another in the area is in the final stages of planning, and a third is set to open in Vancouver by next September. The success of Whole Foods - a single store with 19 employees started it all in 1980 - shows just how popular eating well has become, at least in a significant subset of the population. "Everything in the store is at least 'natural,' and then we try to offer an organic option wherever possible," says Stefanie Artis, the chain's Toronto-based spokeswoman. By natural, Artis means free of any artificial colours, flavours, preservatives and sweeteners. The company is selective about the salmon it offers. "First of all, there's PCBs in everything," says Artis, "which the average person doesn't necessarily know." The store's farmed salmon, she adds, was tested by a private laboratory and showed 340 times less dioxin and over 1,000 times less PCBs than wild salmon.

A BRAVE NEW WORLD of food production awaits us. In 2000, Kraft Foods helped create a heavy-hitting research consortium called NanoteK, a play on the word nanotechnology, the science of manipulating atoms and molecules to do our bidding. For instance, Kraft wants to learn how nanoparticles can improve flavour. Some of the thinking is way out there - we're talking food that changes colour, flavour and nutrient value to suit a person's health or palate. We're talking filters to remove toxins. We're even talking packaging that can detect whether food has gone bad. But are we talking madness, or progress? Who can say with certainty? Eating well has always been about ensuring a balanced diet. Increasingly, however, it also means balancing commerce and nutrition, and finding ways to produce food without polluting it.

See also AGRICULTURE AND FOOD.

Maclean's January 26, 2004