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Food Safety: Romney and Obama Focus on Different Solutions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Source: League of Women Voters

We now have responses to the Top Science Questions facing the US from Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. So I thought I’d look at some of the specifics in their answers to the next question in our weekly list–number 7, on agriculture and food safety. (For this election-year project, Scientific American partnered with ScienceDebate.org, which developed the questions.)

Here’s this week’s question:

Question #7. Food. Thanks to science and technology, the United States has the world’s most productive and diverse agricultural sector, yet many Americans are increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our food.  The use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, as well as animal diseases and even terrorism pose risks.  What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America’s food supply?

Both candidates agree that food safety is important and pledge to make sure our food stays safe.

From the point of view of food safety, the U.S. is not strictly the best in the world. Denmark, Australia and the United Kingdom rank higher on food safety, according to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development. But given its population size (nearly 314 million compared to 91 million for the other three combined), the U.S. has an amazingly safe food system. (Italy, France and Ireland rank lower.)

Governor Mitt Romney’s answer to the food safety question was shorter and had many fewer details than his responses to most of the other 13 questions (which we will explore in upcoming weeks). Romney focused on how well the food-safety system works currently. He praised the “businesses and workers in America’s agriculture system, from farmers and ranchers to packager and processors to grocers and restaurants” who “work incredibly hard to provide peace of mind to the hundreds of millions they feed every year.” And he spoke generally about “preventive practices” being the “best tool to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses.”

While acknowledging that “government regulators play an important role in this system, monitoring products and processes while taking rapid action when problems do arise,” Romney stated that preventive practices against food-borne illness are “best developed by growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain with specific knowledge of the risks, diversity of operations in the industry, and feasibility of potential mitigation strategies.” He did not get into specifics about pesticides, hormones, terrorism or the overuse of antibiotics in animals that contributes to the growing drug-resistance in people.

In his response, President Obama talked about food-borne illness, pesticides and antibiotics, but not hormones or terrorism. He stated that “one in four people were getting sick every year due to food-borne illness” when he took office and that the “comprehensive reform of our nation’s food safety laws” that were enacted during his Administration “have strengthened standards, prevented food from being contaminated with dangerous bacteria, bolstered surveillance used to detect contamination problems earlier” and allowed health authorities to respond “to illness outbreaks faster.”

Obama is on fairly solid ground here. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the U.S. appears to be making progress on food-borne illness overall, but there is room for improvement.

Based on 1999 estimates, roughly “one in four” Americans were getting sick each year from food-borne illnesses. A 2010 study showed that the number was more like “one in six.” But the CDC cautions that you cannot use the decrease in those numbers as evidence of a trend. For one thing, both are based primarily on self-reports and are probably underestimates in any event.

A better measure for trend data comes from laboratory confirmed cases of food-borne illness caused by half a dozen different pathogens. These are not your garden-variety cases of food poisoning. These are severe infections that come to the CDC’s notice because they are life-threatening. So they don’t give you the whole picture. But they are good indicators of the general trend.

As the following graphic from the CDC’s FoodNet shows, the overall trend is good. The biggest-looking exception is Vibrio infection, which first started being tracked in 2007 and is, for the most part, uncommon and comes from eating raw contaminated seafood. (The problem has mostly shown up on the Gulf Coast and some folks in Louisiana think the cure–sterilizing oysters– is worse than the problem). But actually, the 3 percent increase in salmonella (which is much more common than Vibrio) is more worrisome than the 115 percent increase in Vibrio.

 

Click to read the complete answers to the top 14 science questions from Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

For more information about food safety, see

Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration,” a 2010 report by the National Academies that has lots of good background information.

Food Poisoning’s Hidden Legacy,” by Maryn McKenna in the April issue of Scientific American.

“The Crisis of Antibiotic Resistance,” an in-depth report by Scientific American.

“The Science of Our Food,” an in-depth report by Scientific American.

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.

 

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. singing flea 7:41 pm 09/7/2012

    “Governor Mitt Romney’s answer to the food safety question was shorter and had many fewer details than his responses to most of the other 13 questions (which we will explore in upcoming weeks). ”

    Not surprising considering his only slim chance of getting elected rests in the hands of corporations that are trying to convince the masses that pesticide use, hormones and GMO Frankin-foods are already carefully controlled to prevent negative consequences on society. The whole concept of drug resistant bacteria and mutant viruses is counter to his belief in creationism. He modeled his policy mantra on the environmental responsibility the oil industry has demonstrated in Nigeria and Ecuador. In fact, they did such a good job there, that Romney is going to follow in Cheney’s footsteps and deregulate the food industry and eliminate their liability the same as Cheney did to the oil industry. Oh, and as for the EPA, that’s another one of industries headaches. Lie the CDc , the EPA will be on the chopping block too if Romney has anything to say about it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. collettedesmaris 7:09 am 09/8/2012

    The article states that “both candidates agree that food safety is important and pledge to make sure our food stays safe.”

    Boy, howdy; doesn’t that answer instill complete confidence in either “lesser of two evils.” They both agree that ‘food safety is important’??!! Duh! Not the answer I was looking for from the person who is destined to hold the highest office in our land.

    And, I love the second part of that statement: “they pledge to make sure our food stays safe.” I sure hope that when they both made that pledge that they weren’t holding one of their hands behind their backs with their fingers crossed! But wait – I’m sure they made it a “Scout’s Honor” pledge, huh?!

    I don’t know about the rest of you folks, but the vow to “pledge” coming from either one of these two just ain’t gonna get it. Both of these guys have really bad track records for keeping promises, so subsequently, I just don’t trust them – neither one of ‘em. Obama
    broke the most serious oath that anyone can take – the oath to uphold The Constitution in his role as President. But, not only did he violate that oath that he swore to, but he also broke his own verbal promise to the American People last New Year’s – when; after publicly promising in an announcement to America that he would not sign the Senate Bill 1867 (NDAA) – he turned right around and signed it and passed it through.He betrayed us by breaking his verbal promise; and he violated the oath he swore to uphold The Constitution of the United States of America by
    actually taking away a fundamental liberty as set down in The Constitution!!
    We would be complete fools to trust his word ever again – because the
    man has proven – more than once – that his word can’t be trusted. I’m
    just telling it like it really is – he called it.

    The other guy’s track record ain’t too hot either – they don’t call him the
    “Flip-Flopper” for nothin’! You don’t ever know where the man really stands,
    because he adjusts his stand on an issue to suit the crowd he’s playing to.
    He’s a faker – he is whatever the crowd is – and vacillates back & forth on
    every issue, except when he’s protecting his ga-zillion dollars. Don’t trust
    him at all either. No reason to.

    Neither Obama or Romney mentioned the real problems we have going on
    in our food chain – and there is no way they can be unaware of the
    devastating developments in that arena. Romney’s “non-answer” was to
    apply his usual method of attempting to flatter – he issues compliments to
    the workers in America’s agriculture system – without telling you how the
    government does nothing as they stand back and allow Monsanto to
    completely take over the entire American agricultural system – while they
    squeeze the small-scale farmer out of business and out of house & home.

    The article states that Obama talked about food-borne illness, pesticides,
    and antibiotics but not hormones or terrorism. The author failed to say
    that Obama also neglected to mention fungicides, insecticides, & herbicides –
    which, along with pesticides, are the stuff that geoengineered crops are
    made of! Not to mention the run-off from this plethora of toxic substances
    that infiltrates the water supplies of the adjacent rural communities. Oh,
    and what about the devastating drought conditions across the United
    States this year, that all of the reports say will result in a food shortage as
    well as a price hike to the ceiling for whatever crops can be harvested?
    And, incidentally – do you know that there was a remedy readily
    available to alleviate the devastating drought? One that they’ve known
    about since 1947. So, let’s see … Obama was in office during the time
    of the devastating drought, and he did not take advantage of the technology
    that our government has dumped money into developing for decades,
    that would have alleviated the drought and saved our valuable crops. That
    is actually a real testimonial on what he’ll do about our food chain, isn’t it?
    Oops! Looo-cee, you got some splainin’ to dooo!

    The way I see it, just on this one issue here – neither one of these guys
    would rise to the call the way we should be able to rely on them to. And,
    this is not just my opinion – this is the conclusion based upon the performance
    of both of these men – and they’re both lagging. My goodness! Ollie – now just
    look at the mess you’ve gotten us into! This is not a good sign. We are doomed.

    Link to this
  3. 3. singing flea 1:10 am 09/9/2012

    @collettedesmaris

    “…after publicly promising in an announcement to America that he would not sign the Senate Bill 1867 (NDAA) – he turned right around and signed it and passed it through.”

    This statement is actually completely wrong. You have been duped by right wing naysayers. Obama was opposed to the bill. Unfortunately for him, his veto could be overrode by a 2/3 majority in congress. Any president knows that is a waste of time and energy and when a veto override is certain. It was time to put on the hat of compromise and get on with the battles he can win. Obama can at least do the math.

    FYI…The HR 1540 NDAA (the actual bill that was passed) was passed with a 67.5% majority of which 68.8% were Republicans and 33.2% were Democrats who voted yes and 68.4% Democrats who voted nay while 32.6% of the Republicans voted nay.

    http://votesmart.org/bill/votes/37467
    This is where you really lose all credibility in my estimation…
    “And, incidentally – do you know that there was a remedy readily available to alleviate the devastating drought? One that they’ve known about since 1947. So, let’s see … Obama was in office during the time
    of the devastating drought, and he did not take advantage of the technology”

    This sounds an awful lot like a conspiracy theory about weather control and climate change. If you really want people to respect your opinion you are going to have to do better then unsubstantiated nonsense.

    Link to this

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