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Watch What You Eat: Guide to Food Safety

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Problem #2: Pinpointing Danger Too Late

To power up for your workout, you sometimes eat an energy bar. If your favorite brand contains peanuts, you may have risked taking a bite out of your health last fall. While the salmonella outbreak probably started in September, according to the CDC, authorities didn't spot clusters of food-poisoning cases until mid-November, and contaminated peanut products weren't yanked from shelves until January. The snail's-pace reaction time is partly due to the fact that food-borne illness develops slowly. A bug like E. coli, for instance, incubates for three days before triggering diarrhea and vomiting, and most victims don't go to the doctor for several days after that. Then it takes another one to three days for a lab to detect the E. coli and up to 11 more days to ship it to state health authorities and get DNA results. That plodding process must be repeated for each case to confirm that they're all caused by the same strain of bacteria. "In the meantime, a lot of people can get sick," Doyle says.

The Safety Solution: After a huge E. coli outbreak in the 1990s, the CDC created FoodNet, a surveillance network that searches for new cases of food-borne illness and reports them to the CDC. "It's a giant step forward," says Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. However, only 10 states currently have funding for the system (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee). The other 40 have to rely on local health departments. "Unfortunately, some states don't have very good ones," says Ted Labuza, PhD, a food science and nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota. The good news: President Obama's budget for 2010 includes an increase of $259 million for food safety, including surveillance.

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