Consumer News

Worried About What’s In Your Food? You’re Not Alone

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70% of Americans worry about pesticides and antibiotics in their food AFP / Pau BARRENA

More than two-thirds of Americans worry about the chemicals in their food, and over 10% have little to no trust in the safety of the food they eat. These are the results of a 2020 survey by biotechnology company BioMérieux and food testing and safety company Merieux NutriSciences. 

This is the companies’ second international food survey, but the fact it was conducted during the pandemic makes it unique.

“Unlike any other year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to re-evaluate the way we think about food safety, as well as the way we eat and purchase food,” said BioMeriéux in its introduction to the International Food Safety Consumer Survey 2020, on their website. “This survey will provide insight into what consumers feel more concerned about, whether their level of confidence in the food they eat has altered, as well as any changes they’ve made to their eating habits.”

So, how are the Americans surveyed watching out for their health? Of the Americans surveyed, 73% said they were eating more “immune-boosting” food, and 59% said they were eating less processed food. 

Americans are most worried about the presence of chemicals or bacteria in their food, followed by concern about food fraud, or manufacturers lying about where food comes from or the ingredients. 

The food survey was carried out in France, India, China and the US. Researchers used a sample of consumers representative of each country’s population, according to gender, age, occupation and level of education.

“As someone who has represented members of the food and beverage industry for over 30 years, I have always been able to proudly proclaim that the United States food supply is the safest in the world,” commented attorney Paul Benson in a post about the survey on the legal website Lexology. He is a partner in the law firm Michael Best in Milwaukee.

Mr. Benson chalked up concern over pesticides and antibiotics to “heightened consumer awareness (and corresponding concern) over how their food is grown, processed, and prepared . . . [That] continues to be a leading industry trend.” 

But, if 70% of Americans are worried, who is protecting the US consumer? The answer to that involves researchers and several governmental agencies.

An eye on pesticides

For years, a major food safety concern has been pesticides. And the frontline regulator is the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), “the EPA must ensure that all pesticides used on food in the United States meet the FQPA’s stringent safety standard,” states the EPA’s website. 

So, although some quantity of pesticide remains on produce by the time it reaches consumers, it is carefully tracked and monitored by the EPA. “It is important to note, though, that just because a pesticide residue is detected on a fruit or vegetable, that does not mean it is unsafe,” the EPA explained. “Very small amounts of pesticides that may remain in or on fruits, vegetables, grains, and other foods decrease considerably as crops are harvested, transported, exposed to light, washed, prepared and cooked.”

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) independently tests common fruits and vegetables for pesticides. Every year they list the “ dirty dozen” -- the 12 foods with the most pesticide residue:  strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.

A 2018 study by Environment and Reproductive Health (EARTH) researchers at the Harvard school of public health found that women who were trying to get pregnant using in vitro fertilization were more likely to succeed if they ate fruit and vegetables with fewer pesticides. 

However, eating fruit and vegetables outweighs the risk, according to Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “All scientists, and even the folks at EWG, would agree that not eating vegetables and fruits poses the greatest risk to health,” Ms. Rarback wrote in a piece for the Miami Herald. She reminded consumers that they would need to eat a tremendous amount of produce in a short space of time to see any ill effect from pesticides.

The Alliance for American Food and Farmers even has a calculator that consumers can use to get an idea of how much produce they would need to eat to be at risk. 

Chemicals are the main ingredient in food

Of course, all food is comprised of chemicals. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)  explained , “All food is made up of chemical substances. Chemicals in food are largely harmless and often desirable – for example, nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fibre are composed of chemical compounds.”

Even the things that give our natural food color and flavor are chemicals. This is not to say all chemicals are good. Some chemicals are toxic, although a person would usually need consistent high exposure, said the EFSA. There are also regulations to avoid exposure to known nasty chemicals.

What about antibiotics in food? 

As for antibiotics, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate their use. In 2017 it became illegal to use antibiotics for production purposes. Antibiotics can make some animals grow larger faster, but their use requires the approval of a veterinarian. 

For people who are worried, the agriculture department does officially certify that it has inspected a production line. If a product is labeled “USDA Process Verified,” then it is safe to trust any claims of “no antibiotics ever” or “raised without antibiotics.” 

We are all aware that antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat have been known to make humans sick. Practicing good food safety can avoid infections in the first place. According to the FDA, this means keeping a clean kitchen, rinsing veggies under running water, keeping raw meat and produce separate, cooking meat all the way through, and storing food properly in the refrigerator. 

Don’t waste the good stuff

In some good news, more than half of all Americans surveyed said they would be willing to eat oddly or irregularly shaped fruit and vegetables. Anecdotally, the Natural Resources Defense Council said quite a lot of produce is lost post-harvest, or culled, because of unusual shape, size, weight or blemishes. Campaigns to get people to eat irregular, often discarded produce have been hailed as a way to reduce food waste. 

The take home

So, for Americans worried about chemical adulteration of their food, the best thing to do is investigate. There are some agencies that protect food, but there are also labels, like “organic” or “USDA Process Verified” that can mean specific things about the item.

For everyone, concerned or not, properly washing and cooking food is an essential first step to safeguarding health. 

Sabrina Emms is a science journalist. She got her start as an intern at a health and science podcast out of Philadelphia public radio. Before that she worked as a researcher, looking at the way bones are formed. When out of the lab and away from her computer, she's moonlighted as a pig vet's assistant and a bagel baker.

 

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