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.
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.