Introduction And Definition Of Issues

The term "safe food" represents different ideals to different audiences. Consumers, special interest groups, regulators, industry, and academia will have their unique descriptions based on their perspectives. Much of the information the general public receives about food safety comes through the media. For this reason, media perspectives on the safety of the food supply can influence those of the general public.

Consumers are the end users and thus are at the last link of the food supply chain from production, through processing and distribution, to retail and food service businesses. Consumers are multidimensional and multifaceted. Populations differ in age, life experiences, health, knowledge, culture, sex, political views, nutritional needs, purchasing power, media inputs, family status, occupation, and education. The effect of the interrelationships of these factors on an individual's description of "safe food" has not been established.

When educated consumers were asked by the author to define safe food, their descriptions included some key elements. Safe food means food that has been handled properly, including thorough washing of fish and poultry that will be cooked and anything to be eaten raw. Safe food means food prepared on clean and sanitized surfaces with utensils and dishes that also are cleaned and sanitized. These consumers mention the importance of hand washing by those involved in food preparation and the importance of not reusing cloths or sponges that become soiled. Common sense is a guiding principle for the educated, informed consumer.

Other consumers want safe food that retains vitamins and minerals but does not have harmful pesticides. They describe safe food as food that is within its shelf life and has been stored and distributed under proper temperature control. Some consumers know the word "contamination" and will define safe food as food that is not contaminated.

For other consumers, the descriptions of safe food are more practical, like food that does not make a person ill. For these consumers, safe food means purchasing fresh chicken and not having the package leak or drip juice, making them wonder about the integrity of the initial seal. Consumers use their senses in their descriptions of safe food, and they feel that food that looks or smells bad should not be eaten. Surprisingly, not many consumers refer to labeling as a key component of safe food. Consumers believe they know what to do with food after it is purchased, and they assume that the safety of the food is primarily determined before it reaches their hands. Published data suggest otherwise.

McDowell (1998) reported the results of on-site inspections of 106 households in 81 U.S. cities by professional auditors. A college degree was held by 73% of the participants. Inspection of meal preparation, cleanup, temperatures, sanitation, the environment, and personal hygiene resulted in at least one critical violation being cited in 96% of households. The most common critical violations were cross-contamination (76% of households with this violation), neglected hand washing (57%), improper leftover cooling (29%), improper chemical storage (28%), insufficient cooking (24%), and refrigeration above 45°F (23%).

Similarly, Jay et al. (1999) used video recording to study food handling practices in 40 home kitchens in Melbourne, Australia. Households of various types were video monitored for up to two weeks during 1997 and 1998. There was a significant variance between what people said they would do and what they actually practiced with respect to food safety in the home. The most common unhygienic practices included infrequent and inadequate hand washing, inadequate cleaning of food contact surfaces, presence of pets in the kitchen, and cross-contamination between dirty and clean surfaces and food.

A national telephone survey was done by Altekruse et al. (1995) to estimate U.S. consumer knowledge about food safety. The 1,620 participants were at least 18 years old and had kitchens in their homes. One-third of those surveyed admitted to using unsafe food hygiene practices, such as not washing hands or preventing cross-contamination. There was a disparity between the level of knowledge and corresponding safe hygiene practices. This suggested that decisions to practice safe food handling likely are based on various factors including knowledge, risk tolerance, and experience.

Jay et al. (1999) conducted a telephone survey of 1,203 Australian households and found significant gaps in food safety knowledge. The most important were incorrect thawing of frozen food, poor cooling of cooked food, undercooking of hazardous food, lack of knowledge about safe refrigeration temperatures and cross-contamination, and lack of knowledge about frequency and techniques of hand washing. The authors found the participants receptive to educational information regarding the preparation of safe food. Knowledge and compliance regarding the preparation of safe food increased with the age of the participants.

Special interest groups represent a focused view on safe food. These groups study the issues that they believe are most relevant to food safety and then express their concerns to consumers, regulatory authorities, industry, and academia. They typically define safe food by more specific limits for hazards than those used in the food supply chain. The special interest groups define safe foods through more stringent control limits for microbial pathogens and chemical hazards. They seek a higher level of food safety through requirements for more interventions to control hazards and elimination of chemicals used in food production, over fears of adverse health effects.

Special interest groups often question the approvals by governmental agencies of practices designed to increase the productivity and efficiency associated with agriculture and animal husbandry, for example, the use of antibiotics and hormones. Furthermore, the definition of safe food by selected special interest groups would exclude foods made through enhanced technology, such as genetic engineering. Again, they would view with suspicion, the science that established the safety of these new foods for the regulatory authorities responsible for their approval.

Special interest groups such as the U.S.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) do provide guidance for consumers and recommendations for government. CSPI and the Safe Food Coalition have outlined their recipe for safe food by calling for funding for the U.S. National Food Safety Initiative proposed in 1997, more authority for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enforce food safety laws, more power for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to keep contaminated products off the market, and a single agency responsible for food safety.

The CSPI has noted that consumers need to understand the broader range of products involved as vehicles of foodborne illnesses. The CSPI has stated that, although the effort is underfunded and not well-coordinated, government has improved the safety of the nation's food supply through legislation and regulation.

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