When It Comes to Food Safety, Who’s Looking Out For Our Kids?

Few scenarios are scarier than that of becoming sick—or worse, dying—from something we’ve eaten. And as we’ve reported here, American confidence in the safety of the food we eat has steadily dropped year after year. Only 35 percent of Americans expressed strong agreement with the statement “I am confident in the safety of the food I eat” in 2011, according to a study conducted by the Center for Food Integrity and Iowa State University. That's a drop of four percent from the response to the same statement in 2010.

With outbreaks of listeria, E. coli, and salmonella this year (not to mention arsenic in our brown rice!), we’ve got good reason to doubt the integrity of our food.

Put this toward the top of your list of reasons to fear your food: Young children are exposed to especially high levels of dangerous toxins from food, many of which have been linked to cancer, developmental disabilities, and birth defects.

In a study published in the journal Environmental Health, researchers at UC-Davis and UCLA identified foods with high levels of toxic compounds and measured their consumption over time in children and adults. The study focused on 44 foods known to have high concentrations of toxic compounds: metals, arsenic, lead and mercury; pesticides chlorpyrifos, permethrin and endosulfan; persistent organic pollutants dioxin, DDT, dieldrin and chlordane; and the food processing byproduct acrylamide.

What they found is disturbing: preschool-age children had higher exposure to more than half the toxic compounds being measured. Even relatively low exposures can greatly increase the risk of cancer or neurological impairment.

“We need to be especially careful about children, because they tend to be more vulnerable to many of these chemicals and their effects on the developing brain,” researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health at UC-Davis, told Bioscience Technology.

But despite the research on food toxins, numerous outbreaks in recent years, and even deaths, are food regulators and the government doing enough to keep our children safe? Consider these developments that have occurred in 2012:

The USDA closed hundreds of offices earlier this year, generating concern that safety oversight would take a hit. Despite strong correlation between BPA levels in people and higher risk of ailments including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and liver problems, the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year refused to ban the chemical from—get ready for this—food packaging (where it has been found in high levels). We reported in August that the federal government had yet to implement safety measures passed in the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, despite the commitment that it would do so by March of this year. The EPA reversed a decision to require livestock operators to report how they discard waste, a measure originally intended to cut down on water-borne illness. Earlier this fall, Bloomberg found that third-party inspectors gave farms and factories top safety marks—just before or after their products sickened Americans. The Obama Administration is conducing far fewer safety audits of America’s food than his predecessor, USDA data show.

But Parke Wilde, who teaches U.S. Food Policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, says food safety policy-making is hampered by the difficulty of researcing the connection between low-level exposures and harmful health consequences for children. 

“This leaves policy-makers with wrenching decisions about, for example, how to increase fruit and vegetable crop yields in order to increase consumption without increasing risk from pesticides, and how to increase fish consumption without increasing exposure to heavy metals,” he says.

So, if we can’t depend on our government to ensure that the food we eat is clean, what can we, the consumers, do? Know where every morsel of food we consume came from. Buy exclusively organic products to cut down on foodborne pesticides. Eat a variety of foods rather than just a few.

“Because different foods are treated differently at the source,” Hertz-Picciotto told Bioscience Technology, “dietary variation can help protect us from accumulating too much of any one toxin.”

Do you think the government does enough to improve food safety?

Related articles on TakePart:

Nesquik Pulled From Shelves Due to Salmonella Fears

Sandy's Sinister Side Effect: Foodborne Illness

Are Chickens to Blame for High Arsenic Levels in Your Rice?

Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter