Current And Future Implications

Safe food is a composite of all of the views and descriptions held by consumers, special interest groups, academicians, regulatory authorities, and industry. Almost any single definition of safe food will be overly simplistic, because safe food is a complex, multifaceted concept. The scientific experts attending the 1998 American Academy of Microbiology Colloquium on Food Safety (AAM, 1999) described safe food as follows: Safe food, if properly handled at all steps of production through consumption, is reliably unlikely (i.e., the probability is low and the variability is small) to cause illness or injury.

Everyone wants a safe food supply. The criteria by which food is defined as safe will become more detailed and comprehensive as new steps are taken to improve safety. As capabilities rise, so will the expectations. The difficult decisions are those relating to perceived risks that drive the unnecessary use of public and private resources. If a food is perceived or reported to be unsafe, the story can be amplified in the press and then validated in the public mind by the involvement of politicians and regulators. All this can happen in the absence of scientific data that truly defines the risk (Smith et al., 1999).

Consumers have a role to play in ensuring that food is safe. They need to make informed choices about their food and how it is handled and prepared. According to Lopez (1999), consumer education about food safety must take place. Without a widely accepted definition of safe food, the public will have unrealistic misconceptions about the degree of safety that is attainable. Lopez pointed out that food safety standards have economic as well as scientific dimensions and that consumers are not likely to pay the high costs of absolutely safe food. To this end, industry and government have responsibility for improving safety as well as for educating consumers on the practical aspects of safe food. Research is needed to determine what impacts consumers' food safety practices (AAM, 1999).

The application of Salmonella and Escherichia coli performance standards for the U.S. food supply exemplifies a trend by regulators toward using microbial counts and prevalence data to define safe food. Yet there is general agreement among experts in food safety that food sampling and testing is not the sole means of ensuring safe food. The statistics of routine sampling indicate the limits of testing to define safe food. For example, E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef and Listeria monocytogenes in cooked foods are present at low levels, typically below 0.1%. Even when testing 60 samples per lot, there is a greater than 90% chance of not detecting the pathogen. Companies normally test fewer samples (3-5 per lot) to confirm that their Hazard Analysis and Critical Con trol Point (HACCP) system is functioning; thus the likelihood that testing will establish the safety of the food is greatly limited. Furthermore, pathogens will not be homogeneously distributed in many contaminated foods, which may also reduce the value of sampling and testing to determine safety.

Global differences in judgments on safe food are likely to continue, such as the current disagreements over the safety of beef hormone treatments and genetically modified foods between the U.S. and the European Union. These differences exist despite mechanisms such as the dispute resolution system of the WTO. In general, the European view of safe food is fundamentally different from that in the U.S., with culture and history as important as science in some decision-making processes.

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