Food & Wine
We eat food that could have been grown almost anywhere on the planet, by people we'll never meet, under regulations we don't always have control over.
Every now and again, something fails, and sometimes, as with Fonterra's botulism scare, the failure is all too close to home.
No-one has been reported ill because of Fonterra's contaminated whey, but the affair has been a reminder of the extraordinary faith modern consumers must place in a network of strangers.
At any point between field and fork, disease, contaminants or toxins can be introduced. The biggest mistake is often at the very end of the chain. After all, if that salmonella-infested chicken wing had been cooked properly before you ate it, you wouldn't have needed that week off work.
This is about much more than avoiding a dicky tummy. Food brings in 52 per cent of New Zealand's export income, is the basis of 40,000-odd businesses and provides employment for 18 per cent of the working population. So . . .
... Is our food safe?
If it weren't for the American space programme, says John Brooks, food might be making us sick more often than it does.
Brooks, professor of food microbiology at AUT, says in the late 1960s, when Nasa began flinging astronauts skyward, it realised it couldn't afford anyone getting sick - vomiting in a spacesuit helmet would be dangerous. So they went looking for ways to guarantee their spacemen never got food poisoning. The answer, it seems, is to be a neurotic, and plan ahead.
Nasa developed a system, now known as "hazard analysis", where instead of waiting for things to go wrong, you predict everything that might go wrong, and try to prevent it.
The philosophy is now used in everything from aircraft manufacture to food production, and was adopted by New Zealand food businesses from the 1980s. This approach, says Brooks, is more effective than endless safety-testing of finished products.
Globalisation, and centralisation of our food supply, mean we increasingly get food from huge companies with good quality controls, which arguably makes food safer.
The downside is that when something goes wrong, it can go really wrong: like a US company recalling 10,000 tonnes of hamburger beef because of an e coli scare in 2007, or when 14,700 people in Japan were poisoned after a processing error in a single dairy factory in 2000.
On balance, though, says Brooks, our food is "pretty safe" - probably safer than it was 25 years ago.
What goes wrong?
Bugs: By far the greatest food- related harm (if you ignore nutritional baddies such as salt, sugar and fat), comes courtesy of bacteria and viruses.
Brooks never takes the chicken at a barbecue, as you can't be sure a piece has been cooked through. There are also dangers with contaminated salad ingredients, poorly cooked meat, even icecrea m: freezing stops bugs from multiplying, but won't reverse contamination during production. Brooks isn't too keen on unpasteurised milk either.
Bacterial and viral food illnesses are staggeringly common, and worryingly serious. Last year, more than 7000 New Zealanders were reported to authorities as being sickened by campylobacter, and 544 were hospitalised. More than 1000 were stricken by salmonella and 128 ended up in hospital. Six people died of listeriosis. Environmental Science and Research (ESR) estimates there were a million food-related illnesses last year, once you include minor and unreported cases.
Other food dangers can't match bugs for numbers of cases, but they can still be serious. They include . . .
Foreign objects: Pieces of glass sheared into the jam jar from an overtightened lid. A shard of steel in your bread from a broken production machine. Insects in your flour.
Deliberate adulteration: Six babies died when melamine was added to milk in China to cheat a protein-content test. Food cheats have always been with us. Examples from 1800s Europe include lozenges made with clay, pepper bulked with floor sweepings and copper being used to make pickles green.
Bad chemicals: Cases affecting New Zealand have included carcinogenic "sudan dyes" in a chilli powder from India, arsenic in Japanese edible seaweed, and lead in imported cornflour. On the bright side, ESR says levels of pesticide residue and metals such as lead and mercury in our food are generally low.
Natural poisons: There are natural toxins in peach pits, parsnip peel, uncooked kidney beans and green potatoes among other foods, though they seldom cause much harm. In 2008, though, 22 people were poisoned by honey from bees that had visited flowers of the tutu plant. Last year 13 people in the Bay of Plenty were hospitalised with "paralytic shellfish poisoning", from eating pipi that had eaten a poisonous algae.
Poisonous peanuts: The fungus Aspergillus flavus, which makes its home on damp peanuts, produces aflatoxins, which attack the liver. The problem is rare since changes worldwide in the handling of peanuts.
Accidental overdoses: Food additives are generally safe, but the preservative sulphur dioxide can trigger asthma attacks in high doses - admittedly unlikely barring a production error. In 1994, 10 people were injured in a Waikato town after the local dairy factory contaminated their water supply with caustic soda.
Amateur bottlers: Brooks advises against home bottling of non-acidic foods such as peas and beans. The culprit is Clostridium botulinum spores, the same bug that got Fonterra in trouble. Home bottling seldom reaches the 121 degrees Celsius required to kill spores. If bottling, says Brooks, stick to acid fruits like peaches and plums, and freeze your peas.
Who's keeping us safe from our food, then?
That's the everyday job of food producers, manufacturers, outlets, and home cooks, but official oversight of food safety sits with the Ministry of Primary Industries.
The ministry has sway over everything from beekeepers and dairy farmers to pie carts and restaurants, and with ESR conducts research on how to battle foodborne diseases more effectively. Food safety research is also done by universities and other groups.
A bill overhauling the 1981 Food Act is inching through Parliament, championed by Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye. A recent Cabinet paper on the bill said New Zealand's "food safety legislation lags well behind world's best practice".
Individual food outlets are assessed by councils' environmental health officers.
Are things getting better or worse?
Brooks says we've made huge strides recently, especially in managing the risk of campylobacter in chicken. Overall, though, food poisoning in the West isn't going down. Recent improvements in food handling may be being offset by other changes - especially huge increases in eating out.
Often, says Brooks, consumers struggle to recognise where the real dangers in foods lie. They might be terribly worried about pesticide residue, or irradiated foods, or preservatives.
What they should be worried about is whether there's a tear in packaging holding their supermarket meat. That's the kind of risk that's "horribly underestimated".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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