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The Flu or Food Poisoning?

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Ever had the so-called stomach flu brief bout of achiness, fever, or nausea? If so, then there`s a good chance you`ve been poisoned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta

Ever had the so-called stomach flu brief bout of achiness, fever, or nausea? If so, then there's a good chance you've been poisoned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. The "24-hour" or "stomach" flu may be a myth. But every year, says the CDC, millions in the US and Canada suffer severe, and even fatal, reactions to contaminated food.

Once, Canadians only worried about becoming sick from food poisoning when they travelled to exotic destinations. After all, the food supply here was about the safest in the world. These days, however, it seems that all food is suspect.

Hamburger meat has been found to contain dangerous new strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and chicken is rife with a number of bacteria, notably campylobacter. That good old staple, the egg, is a carrier of salmonella. Vegetables and fruits may harbor protozoans with names like toxoplasma and cryptosporidium. Outbreaks of hepatitis A have been traced to strawberries. Sometimes you wonder whether you should post a warning sign on your refrigerator door.

But the threat is frighteningly real; the figures are staggering. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a private nonprofit organization, estimated that in one year as many as 9,000 deaths and 6.5 to 33 million illnesses in the US and Canada are food-related. And these are only the serious cases; it's safe to say that the majority of the less serious food contamination cases are not reported and are passed off by the victims as a stomach flu.

Estimates place medical costs and productivity losses for just seven specific pathogens between $9 billion and $45 billion US annually. And, if the growing list of food recalls is any indication, the situation seems to be getting worse.

Invisible Infestation

Numerous food items have been implicated from apple juice to beef. But chicken may be the worst. It is sold, prepared and eaten with the skin still attached skin that frequently is contaminated with feces and invisible but deadly bacteria. Ground beef is also quite susceptible to contamination. Pathogens are mixed throughout the meat in the grinding process and the meat may come from many carcasses, increasing the chances of infection. But what about all those government-inspected certifications, not to mention all the food inspectors whose salaries come right out of our tax dollars?

"Much of what they look for does not have anything to do with your health," says Carol Foreman, former head of the US inspection system. Inspectors check for chicken, for instance, that looks good and appears clean; but no tests are performed by the inspectors that will indicate the possible presence of chicken fecal pathogens. In Canada too, appearance is the key test.

Under Canadian law and US export regulations, all animals slaughtered for food and exported outside the province or the country must be inspected by veterinarians before and after death. The vets, who supervise inspectors at meat plants, are supposed to check visually for signs of disease before approving the meat as safe for consumption. However, harmful bacteria and contaminants that cause most food-borne illness, especially the serious ones, cannot be seen. Nor can you smell them or taste them. Canada has cut about 200 inspectors and vets from its staff since 1997 and the agency is moving toward an inspection system that relies on meat plants to police themselves.

Truckers that carry food often "back haul" other materials. Tankers delivering apple juice to city A are reloaded with chemicals for the return trip to city B; transports hauling beef to one part of the country on one day, may have been used to carry toxic, maggot-riddled garbage in another part of the country the day before.

Industry officials claim that trucks are professionally cleaned. Ideally that is true, but that can be costly and keep the vehicle off the road too long. Some tanker drivers have admitted regularly hauling loads of cranberry juice and milk and carrying industrial chemicals on each back haul. Just one infected load of apple juice can find its way into more than 70,000 homes!

Also, many Canadians worry about the synthetic hormones injected into livestock. Although Health Canada has not allowed bovine growth hormone (BGH) to be used on Canadian cows, there are fears about the unlabelled dairy products that arrive here daily from the US. Repeated recalls of food and a number of lawsuit settlements over deaths from food poisoning (some up to $90 million US), have been costly.

The meat industry has been struggling with new and far more virulent foodborne pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7 and campylobacter. Food firms may have to start cleaning up their act; but their first impulse is to irradiate.

When hearings began in 1997 on US Agriculture Department plans to secure broad power to impose fines on those distributing infected products, legislators were greeted by an orchestrated panel of expert witnesses provided by: the American Meat Institute, Grocery Manufacturers of America, National Food Processors Association and the National Broilers Council. Their message was clear: technology is the way to a safe food supply, not fines and sanctions. Technology? Read that as irradiation.

Irradiation A Step Backwards

Irradiation gives a whole new meaning to "nuking" your food. The radiation comes from gamma-ray emitters such as cobalt-60. It works by stripping electrons from atoms to f create positively and negatively charged ions that harm or t kill rapidly-growing cells in molds, fungi, insects and microbes. There is no residual radioactivity and the exposure used is usually low. Food is rendered relatively sterile. Ionizing radiation has been around for more than four decades. Industry would like to expand its use of irradiation although the procedure "may not be foolproof." In fact, increased reliance on irradiation may discourage other changes in food handling. In 37 countries, health authorities have approved radiation of 40 different foods, including spices and grains, de-boned chicken, fruits and vegetables. Twenty-four of these countries, including the US and Canada, are actually applying the process for commercial purposes.

For many, questions remain about the precise chemical changes to the food. When you strip charged electrons (ions) from atoms, you can change their chemical essence. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration is studying the possibility of toxicity and nutrition loss as a result of irradiation. At greater exposures, vitamins can definitely be lost. Many consumers say they will boycott meat labelled with the familiar radiation symbol or marked "treated with irradiation."

Vegetables and fruits are by far your safest bet, but they should be washed (even if they're organic) to remove any contaminating bacteria that may have attached themselves to the skin.

The potentially fatal E. coli strain has been associated with lettuce, fruit and fruit juices as well as beef. In fact, in 1996, an E. coli outbreak hit the western states and BC; apple juice was found to be the source after 66 people became severely ill and one child died. Meat is far riskier and should be cooked to at least 68°C (155°F); there should be no pink left inside. Chicken is particularly dangerous; chickens peck at their own feces. Thoroughly clean the knife you use to cut raw poultry, as well as the cutting board and your hands, before you touch any other food. "Treat all foods as if they are potentially contaminated," says US food expert Joe Madden, "Because potentially, they are."

Canadians may want to start being as wary of their domestic food as they are of food they consume abroad.

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