Food: how safe is safe?
Table of contents
We make many decisions in our lives. In making these decisions we weigh the benefits against the drawbacks. Along with other factors, we consider health, happiness, convenience, safety, and money and we make trade-offs. We choose a job with a bigger salary over a job we might enjoy more. We drive to work because of the convenience though we may be harmed in an accident. Our decisions are based on what benefits are most important to us and what drawbacks we are willing to accept.
Decisions about what we eat are made in the same way. Benefits of food such as convenience, quality, taste, nutrition, safety, and cost are considered and we make trade-offs. We may choose taste over nutrition or convenience over cost without much thought. When safety of the food is in question, however, our decisions are usually made more carefully. Here is an example.
Let's say we go to a restaurant recommended for its great food and find the silverware very dirty. We assume the restaurant has low standards of cleanliness and worry about getting sick from the food. We decide to go to the cleaner restaurant next door, even though the food is less appealing.
In most cases, however, there is no dirty silverware or other obvious signs that the food is potentially unsafe. In such situations we need more information to make wise food safety decisions. We need to know where food comes from, what it contains, and how our government decides which foods are safe for us to eat.
There are no clear-cut decisions when it comes to food safety. All food has both benefits and drawbacks. That is why the more we understand about food safety in general, and the terminology used to describe it, the better equipped we will be to make appropriate decisions.
Understanding food hazards and risk
Food contains natural chemicals from the original plant or animal sources. It may also come in contact with many natural and artificial substances during production, processing, and preparation. All of these potentially harmful substances in food are called hazards and thus we talk about potential food hazards. They include microorganisms, naturally present chemicals, chemicals produced by cooking, environmental contaminants, additives, and pesticides. The chance of being harmed by these hazards is called risk. In making food safety decisions, we must weigh the food benefits, against the level of risk of the food hazard.
Understanding risk levels
Scientists and food safety experts may rank the risk levels of potential food hazards from high to low as shown in the chart below. Any of these substances could be a low risk or a high risk for harm depending on the specific circumstances. For example, pesticides are generally consumed in such small amounts on food that they are a low risk as indicated in the chart. However, they may be a high risk if improperly applied.
Examples of potential food hazards
From higher risk to lower risk
- Microorganisms: bacteria, molds, parasites, viruses
- Chemicals naturally present: chemicals produced by the original plant or animal as it develops
- Chemicals produced by cooking: chemicals formed under high heat conditions
- Environmental contaminants: artificial contaminants from hazardous waste, industrial pollution, etc.
- Pesticides: chemicals added to crops to restrict insects, molds, or weeds and plant growth regulators
- Additives: chemicals added to food to prevent the growth of microorganisms, stimulate production, or preserve the desired flavor, color, or appearance
Scientists estimate the amount of risk in any potential food hazard. This is called risk assessment. These are the factors they consider:
- whether or not the substance will cause adverse reactions in the body
- the amount of the substance eaten
- whether the length of exposure is infrequent or lifelong
- how severe the resulting harm or illness would be
- whether or not age, previous illness, or genetics will cause greater sensitivity to a hazard
Scientists do research to assess risk and use their judgment to interpret the data. These assessments often begin with studying the effects of certain substances on animals. There are limits to the usefulness of animal studies in judging possible effects on people. Diseases or injuries to animals may be different in humans or may not occur in humans. Some diseases may occur in humans but not in animals. It is also difficult to estimate how much of a food a person would typically eat and thus how much of the food hazard is involved. Because money and time constraints make it impossible to do every conceivable study, some less likely diseases may be overlooked. These are some of the reasons why scientists may disagree on data interpretation and ultimately report different risk levels for the same hazard.
Risk assessment methods are not perfect and must continue to be improved. However, these risk assessment methods are still essential to determine the safety of chemicals when used in different situations. If risk assessments, however imperfect, were not done, many more food hazards would go undetected.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are federal agencies which assess the risks of pesticides and food additives respectively. They regulate the use of these substances based upon such risk assessments. These agencies do not approve the use of a substance which is a potential food hazard if the risk is high. If the risk is low, they approve its use and specify how and in what amount it should be used.
Our willingness to accept a risk is based on more than just scientific risk assessment results. For instance, experts may say there is a low risk associated with a certain food. If we have no choice in the matter, don't trust the information source, feel it is unfair because it only affects us, or the hazard is artificial, we may disregard that expert advice. We don't accept the risk. For example, people often insist that an artificial substance, such as a pesticide, is a greater hazard than a natural substance, such as food borne bacteria despite scientific evidence indicating otherwise. We have the right to decide whether or not to accept a risk, but should be aware of the major factors which affect those decisions.
Assuring relative food safety
Deciding whether a food is safe or hazardous is difficult. It has the potential to be both. Food can never be proven to be entirely safe nor entirely hazardous. It can only be proven to be hazardous to some degree under certain conditions. While demanding completely safe food is unrealistic, it is possible to have food in which potential hazards have been reduced. The United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world. Maintaining a safe food supply is a goal of the majority of food producers, processors, and distributors. The Food and Drug Administration, United States Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Health, and local health departments monitor the food supply to ensure that goal.
As consumers, we significantly influence policies and programs which assure relative food safety. To increase food safety we also can:
- Be aware of benefits and risks, when making food choices.
- Support, challenge, and fund our government agencies to improve and clarify risk assessment methods and decisions made based on these assessments.
- Vary what we eat. Eat foods which are fresh, canned, dried, and frozen, and prepare them in different ways. Eat foods grown or raised in different places and made by different companies. This minimizes exposure to food hazards. Demand that more choices be provided.
- Properly store, handle, and cook food.
- Penner, Karen P. 1988. Chemicals and Our Foods. Kansas State University: Cooperative Extension Service. L-777.
- Rogers, Robert W. 1987. "Foods are Chemicals." Science of Food and Agriculture. September. Vol. 5. No. 3. P. 16-19.
- Schafer, William. 1988. Bacterial Food-Borne Illnesses. University of Minnesota: Minnesota Extension Service. FO-3521.
- Segal, Marian. 1990. "Is it Worth the Worry? Determining Risk." FDA Consumer. June. Vol. 24. No. 5. P. 7-11.
- United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. 1989. Produce, Pesticides, and Perceptions.
- Zeckhauser, Richard J. and Viscusi, W. Kip . 1990. "Risk Within Reason." Science 248: 559-563.
Reviewed by Katherine Waters, University of Minnesota Extension Program Leader Food Systems, 2011. Reviewed by Suzanne Driessen, University of Minnesota Extension Educator, 2012