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Eat at Your Own Risk: The Truth About Tainted Health Foods

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Eat at Your Own Risk: The Truth About Tainted Health Foods

By Joseph Hart, Experience Life

Tree of life. Dancing Star. Mojo. Karma. They sound like workshop sessions at a 1968 “be-in,” but, in fact, they are just a few of the natural and organic food brands yanked from grocery shelves during last spring’s salmonella outbreak.

The poisoned peanuts at the root of the problem, distributed by the now-infamous Peanut Corporation, represent one of the most widespread outbreaks of foodborne illness in recent history: More than 700 cases of salmonella, including nine deaths, have been linked to nuts processed by the company. Victims have filed lawsuits; Congress has given its executives the third degree; consumers across the nation have dumped tons of peanut-containing products into waste bins.

What the headlines didn’t reveal, however, is that the Georgia facility was certified to process organic foods. And among the products that passed through the plant were high-profile natural brands such as Clif Bar and a number of other health-oriented products featured at natural grocers and health-food stores.

This fact makes the peanut recall even more disturbing for health-conscious consumers who may have assumed that their selective buying habits kept them safe. After all, part of the appeal of organic foods is that they are carefully formulated and crafted: free of pesticides, chemicals and genetic engineering. But as the Peanut Corporation has demonstrated, the organic safety zone doesn’t necessarily extend to foodborne illness.

“The standards that protect us from pesticide residue are not protecting us from pathogens,” says Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the food safety division of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest. “People confuse the words quality and safety. But there’s no reason — none — to do so.”

The Peanut Corporation is only the latest case to prove her point. Among the more high-profile recalls: Thousands of packages of Veggie Booty, an “all-natural” snack food, were recalled in 2007 due to salmonella contamination. In 2006, Dagoba (owned by Hershey) recalled several organic chocolate-bar varieties because of high levels of lead in the cacao; the same year, Natural Selection Foods, which supplies salad greens to dozens of organic brands, recalled spinach tainted with E. coli.

Every year, roughly 76,000 people in the United States take ill from poisoned food. And while organics may represent only a small number of these cases, and may, in fact, receive more oversight in certain aspects of their sourcing and production, the high level of trust that we carry into the natural foods store may not always be entirely warranted.

So what are the loopholes that currently allow dangerous pathogens to make their way to our dinner plates? What are best-in-class food brands doing to prevent future problems? And how can we protect ourselves and our families from contaminated foods that are slipping past our trusted gatekeepers?

The good news is that we needn’t wait for Congress to rewrite the food safety laws. By learning more about where our food comes from and how it can become contaminated, we can minimize our risks, starting today.

Next: Tips for Staying Safe

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Megan, selected from Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

14 comments

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2:11AM PST on Feb 3, 2010

Wonderful tips! Damp newspaper and shaggy dog?!? That IS what a corked bottle smells like. Just FYI, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole is a chemical (not a fungus). It is produced by airborne fungi on cork trees when the trees are exposed to chlorphenols, a class of chemicals used in pesticides...hence the increased incidence in modern times. For a didactic barage on this subject, check out wikipedia article "cork taint," which is pretty helpful.
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2:12AM PDT on Oct 27, 2009

Hi,
This article is great.i’ll put this article to my bookmarking page.thx for post man i’m following you.


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11:00PM PDT on Sep 25, 2009

i find myself buying more organic vegetables this year than i have in past years.

fortunately here in washington there are a lot of local organic growers.

7:14PM PDT on Sep 22, 2009

Buying local and eating more

11:21AM PDT on Sep 22, 2009

Thanks for all the good information. One thing that is never addressed in food related articles, here or elsewhere, is the fact that you cannot always "eat local", especially produce. I live in Utah and there are many foods that won't grow here, plus we have a limited growing season. From October through May there is no local produce. What are the suggested options, always eating canned or frozen? I already look at where the produce in the store was grown and then decide if I really need that item or not. I try to avoid items that have been shipped great distances (across oceans) or farther than Mexico or Canada, when possible. That's partly due to environmental concern and partly due to humanitarian concerns. I try not to buy products from countries with horrible human rights records.

1:46AM PDT on Sep 22, 2009

If you have your garden be happyif you have no garden, do an effort to buy one. In this way you will have a place to spend your time in a pleasant plase and it depends only on you that your meal how healty will be.

12:40PM PDT on Sep 21, 2009

Learning to grow your own food is as important, if not more, than any of these steps mentioned. First hand understanding of HOW food is produced will help consumers better understand the challenges and risks that producers, large and small, face.

12:24PM PDT on Sep 21, 2009

Buy fresh, cook at home.

9:02AM PDT on Sep 21, 2009

As much as possible, know where your food comes from, and who grew it. Process it yourself, if you possibly can. Small, local farms are the way to food safety.

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