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The meat of the matter

Handling of food subject to many myths

Many Fort Wayne residents stuffed themselves silly on Thanksgiving with little thought about the safety of the traditional turkey feast accompanied by all of the trimmings. But the deadly salmonella outbreak this summer caused by tainted cantaloupe from an Indiana farm should serve as a reminder that people still need to be cognizant about food safety.

Despite all of the technological advances in food production and the outcry from some about the overregulation of the food industry, food safety remains a significant concern.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food causes 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths in Americans each year.

It is wrong to assume all the food you purchase has been inspected for safety. Ultimately, food safety remains the responsibility of consumers. Here are five myths about food safety that deserve debunking.

1. All food that is labeled FDA inspected is inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Often it is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse when it comes to food safety inspections.

Increasingly, private, for-profit companies are inspecting producers rather than the FDA because the federal agency doesn’t have the capacity to inspect the food industry that does $1.2 trillion in annual sales.

In October, Bloomberg News reported the FDA inspected just 6 percent of domestic food producers and only 0.4 percent of importers in 2011. Food producers hire inspection companies known as third party auditors to conduct inspections. But there is little FDA oversight of third party auditors and no rules on how often a producer is inspected.

Doug Powell, the lead author of a recent Kansas State University study called “Audits and Inspections Are Never Enough: A Critique to Enhance Food Safety,” described third party inspections as “meaningless.”

The number of food recalls for fruits and vegetables is increasing, according to the CDC. In 2011, the United States had 37 recalls of fruits and vegetables, compared to two in 2005.

The FDA has tried to take more control of food inspection, but the costs and the accusations of overregulation are slowing those efforts. In 2008, the agency estimated it would need an additional $3 billion for inspections. But the food industry lobbied against the funding increase. Instead we got the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, which continues the use of third party inspectors.

Proponents point out that the bipartisan act is the biggest reform of food safety law in more than 70 years. It is supposed to shift the focus of food safety from responding to a contamination report to prevention.

The act allows the FDA to certify the private companies conducting inspections and audit food producers. It also requires inspectors to share reports with the FDA.

Starting in 2016, the act requires high-risk producers to be inspected every five years.

2. Food from a small organic farm is the best choice.

There are several components to this myth that need parsing.

Because the food from large factory farms reaches more people, the government focuses more of its limited resources on inspecting larger operations. Small farms are actually less likely to receive government oversight. One could argue that it’s easier for a small family farm to pay attention to its food-handling processes, but small, in and of itself, does not always mean safer.

It is also true that attaching the label “organic” to food does not automatically make it healthier or safer. Not all food labeled organic is equal.

Several organizations provide certification, and they don’t all adhere to the same standards. Certification from an organization accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program is best proof that a farm is following best practices not only for organic production but also safe food-handling.

There is still debate on whether organic is nutritionally superior. A recent Stanford University study concluded there was little evidence that organic fruits and vegetables are healthier to eat. An older University of California-Davis study found organic tomatoes contain higher concentrations of flavinoids – a nutrient that plays a role in heart health.

But there is plenty of evidence that organic farming is better for the environment because it uses safer natural methods for controlling weeds and bugs. It also tends to use farming practices that protect soil health and prevent erosion.

3. Fresh turkeys are superior to frozen birds.

There is a difference. A truly fresh turkey tends to be juicier and more tender than a frozen bird. But raw is not the same as fresh. An unscrupulous retailer could easily thaw a previously frozen turkey and sell it as fresh to make more money.

A fresh organic turkey costs about $3.50 per pound, compared to frozen turkey from the local grocery store that runs less than $1 per pound.

Unless you are able to purchase a turkey directly from a nearby turkey farm, you are probably better off going with frozen. A turkey that was frozen immediately after being butchered and was kept frozen until it was cooked may be fresher tasting than a “fresh” bird that isn’t so fresh.

“Everything in food quality and safety has to do with handling,” said Mindy Waldron, deputy administrator for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health. “Some of the issues come up if the turkey is not frozen or thawed correctly. You want an even process when you are freezing, thawing or cooking. You could have an unsafe product that was frozen because it was unsafe before it was frozen or you could have a fresh turkey that was handled improperly. The safety all has to do with proper handling.”

The host who forgot to thaw the turkey and throws it into pot of hot water to hasten the thawing process is also gambling. “Those are risky situations,” Waldron said. The turkey needs to be thawed slowly in the refrigerator.

4. Ground beef from a butcher is safer than from a supermarket.

The pink slime scandal from earlier this year likely led to more people buying ground beef from a butcher rather than a grocery store (or forgoing hamburger all together). Pink slime is the term coined by a former USDA meat inspector for the product known in the meat industry as lean finely textured beef. It is made out of the trimmings when steaks and roasts are cut and is used as filler in ground beef.

One argument in favor of selecting a cut of meat and then having the butcher grind it into hamburger is you know you are getting the meat from one animal. Meat from several cows can be in a pound of ground beef at the supermarket. The theory is that the larger the number of cows, the better that chances that one of the animals was contaminated.

But as with most food safety issues, how the meat is handled and prepared is a better determining factor for its safety.

5. Food is safe as long as it’s in the freezer.

“Typically, people think by throwing it in the freezer – it stops the clock,” Waldron said. “But that’s not necessarily true. It needs to go into the freezer fairly fresh to start.”

She said the length of time you can store anything in the freezer varies greatly by food product. But there are excellent guides available on both the USDA and FDA websites.

An easy to understand downloadable chart is available at www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/ResourcesForYou/HealthEducators/ucm109315.pdf.

Freezing does not kill bacteria, and you can’t cryogenically rejuvenate food that has already started to spoil.

Stacey Stumpf is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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