Editor's Plate: Our food supply under attack

May 14, 2004
We are exposing ourselves and our food supply to things we have never experienced before
First mad cow, then bird flu. What next?

It seems like it's been a while since we had a good disease scare in the U.S. food processing industry. But the past two months have provided us with two. First, mad cow was discovered a few days before Christmas. A month later avian influenza appeared in Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania flocks.

Even two highly publicized incidents in as many months do not an epidemic make. Have they rattled the faith Americans' have in their food supply? No, not at all. Should they rattle your faith? I hope so.

When I wrote the first draft of this editorial in early February, and especially after reading our cover story on mad cow (p22) , I was rock solid in my belief that the whole mad cow situation only proved that our systems work. One cow, caught before it could enter the food supply, born in Canada, yet, and probably fed a few meals before the ban on using risk materials in feed began. The USDA responded with the rule that non-ambulatory, or "downer," cattle cannot be used in the food supply.

Then, in mid-February there surfaced reports from some eyewitnesses that the little Holstein that started all this was not so wobbly-legged after all. The House Committee on Government Reform heard from at least three people who said the animal did not appear to be sick as it was led to slaughter. So, if it weren't for a little luck, some of this beef could have gotten into the food supply. Maybe a safeguard system predicated on obviously sick cattle is not our best defense.

Still later in the month, a team of Italian scientists found a new form of mad cow disease, which more closely resembles the human form of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The initial questions seemed to be, are we adequately testing for this and other variants of the disease; are other forms ever-present, or do they come and go; does this represent a new foodborne form of the illness?

For all the scientific safeguards and state-of-the-art technology we have here in the U.S., we also are exposing ourselves and our food supply to things we have never experienced before. With the way we travel, once-unheard-of diseases in remote corners of the world will be here, sooner or later, brought on the shoes or clothing of people with lots of frequent flyer miles. Our desire for exotic foods will bring in new dangers directly from their sources.

Sure, the USDA is doing its part to keep our food supply safe, and so are the producers of all kinds of livestock that form the basis of so many of your products. But you, the manufacturers and marketers of branded food products, need to be ever vigilant, keeping the pressure on those downstream suppliers and employing the best technology within your own plants and production systems.

Sure, we should be relieved, maybe even happy, that the mad cow scare was limited to a single cow. But we can never let our guard down.

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