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FOOD: How Safe?

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FOOD: How Safe?

By Jennifer AckermanPhotographs by Jim Richardson

Mishandling products in the U.S. food supply—among the safest in the world—can make eating downright unhealthy.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

According to the CDC, each year in the United States 76 million people suffer from foodborne disease; 325,000 of them are hospitalized and 5,000 die. In the developing world contaminated food and water kill almost two million children a year. The epidemiologists in this room are keenly aware that behind the numbing, cold-potato statistics are real people, particularly the very young and the very old, who have suffered debilitating, even lethal, disease from what most of us consider one of life’s less risky activities: eating.

On the face of it, it seems that “risk” should not be in the same sentence with “food”—that essential and wholesome component of life, so mixed and mingled with comfort, security, even love. But often it is. In recent years we’ve heard about the dangerous adulterants contaminating our food: pesticides on our grapes, carcinogens on our strawberries, chemicals on our apples, poisonous metals in our fish. We’ve heard dire warnings of the long-term effects of taking in too much fat or salt or cholesterol. In fact, in the past 30 years or so, there have been so many findings about the possible ill effects of our meals—some of them refuted shortly after being announced—that many of us have become inured to the red flags raised over food dangers.

I consider myself knowledgeable about safe eating. I thought I knew how to buy safe foods; how to clean, cook, and eat them properly; which dishes to order in restaurants and which to avoid. But the stories I have heard from food safety experts and the tales swapped among the epidemiologists at the CDC have swept away my assumptions. I’m starting to rethink the way I shop, cook, eat, feed my children, even the way I define food and see its place in the world.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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What’s safe? What’s not? What’s altered? Hear from photographer Jim Richardson in our award-winning multimedia series.


High-profile incidents of foodborne illnesses and deaths have raised public awareness about food handling and preparation. How have you changed what you eat or the way you handle and cook food? Tell us your stories.

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Did You Know?
While you might not be able to tell whether or not your groceries are contaminated by potentially deadly pathogens, there are several steps you can take to minimize the risk of falling ill from food you prepare at home.

Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating food. Experts advise that you wet your hands under warm water, then lather them with plenty of soap. A proper washing should take about 20 seconds—long enough to sing “Happy Birthday to You” twice. Be sure to scrub all parts of your hands, including under the fingernails. Rinse under warm water. It is better to dry your hands with a paper towel rather than a dishtowel that could have been previously contaminated.

Fruits and vegetables should also be thoroughly washed, particularly if they are going to be eaten raw. The FDA has not approved the use of dish soap for human consumption, so the agency advises against using soap to wash produce.

Careful handling helps prevent cross-contamination. Any utensil or surface that comes in contact with raw meat should be washed thoroughly with warm, soapy water.

For proper cooking techniques follow the recommendations of the experts. The following websites, prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, provide some helpful tips on:




—Jennifer L. Fox and Patricia Kellogg

Did You Know?

Related Links
Gateway to Government Food Safety Information
Offers links to all government food safety sites plus links to documents in more than 30 languages.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Find out about food safety and foodborne illnesses in the Health Topics section of the CDC website. The website also offers links to federal public health and medical resources and state and local health departments.

Fight Bac!
Website of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a group of 27 federal and private organizations created to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness through education about safe food-handling practices. Lots of tips for teachers and families on how to handle and prepare food properly.

Food Safety and Inspection Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture
The home page of the USDA food safety program, this site offers technical and consumer-oriented material.

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U. S. Food and Drug Administration
The gateway to the FDA’s food safety Web pages, this site has consumer information on a variety of health topics.

Center for Veterinary Medicine, FDA
The Center for Veterinary Medicine regulates the manufacture and distribution of food additives and drugs that will be given to animals. The site has information about the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry and increasing antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

World Health Organization Food Safety Program
This site examines a number of food safety issues from an international perspective. Some material is available in English, French, and Spanish.

The Center for Food Safety
The Center for Food Safety (CFS) is a public interest and environmental advocacy organization that works to address the impacts of food production on human health, animal welfare, and the environment.

American Meat Institute
Offers information to industry and consumers on a variety of meat issues.

Eat Chicken
Sponsored by the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, this page includes material on poultry cooking and nutrition and offers the “Ultimate Chicken Recipe Database.”

American Egg Board
This site covers egg safety and nutrition along with recipes and even an “Eggcyclopedia.”


Flandrin, Jean-Louis, and Massimo Montanari. Food: A Culinary History From Antiquity to the Present. English edition by Albert Sonnenfeld. Penguin Books, 2000.

Matossian, Mary Kilbourne. Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History. Yale University Press, 1989.

Taylor, Michael R., and Sandra A. Hoffman. “Redesigning Food Safety: Using Risk Analysis to Build a Better Food Safety System.” Resources for the Future, May 2001. Also available online at


NGS Resources
Rhoades, Robert E. “The World’s Food Supply at Risk,” National Geographic (April 1991), 74-105.


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