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Watch What You Eat: Guide to Food Safety

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Problem #1: Filthy Food

You eat a salad almost every day for lunch to be healthy. But could you actually be making yourself sick? It's possible. Bacteria like E. coli and salmonella in fecal matter from cows and chickens can easily be transmitted to fields where vegetables are grown. For instance, bagged lettuce from California that caused one outbreak was tainted with the same strain of E. coli found on the dairy farm next door. "We're not sure how it got in the lettuce," says Michael Doyle, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. One theory: Runoff from animal waste can end up in the same canals and streams used to irrigate produce. Even packaged foods may not be safe; processing plants can be breeding grounds for bacteria if not properly controlled. The now notorious Georgia peanut facility responsible for the recent salmonella outbreak had foot-long gaps in its roof and mold in its ceilings and walls, and it may have harbored germ-carrying rats, creating conditions in which the bacteria could spread.

The Safety Solution:"We need to move from a system in which the FDA reacts to problems after they occur to one that prevents contamination in the first place," says O'Hara. Under a bill introduced in February by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), processors would be required to meet new standards in order to keep food safe. Although many producers are already doing this, "we currently have a patchwork of standards instead of one high set that everyone has to meet," O'Hara says. The bill, called the Food Safety Modernization Act, would also give the FDA more authority to recall bad food and the power to impose greater fines on lawbreakers.


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