Every year, millions of people across North America are sickened by food-borne illnesses (commonly called food poisoning). These lead to thousands of hospitalizations and even deaths. But the germs responsible for these illnesses aren’t the only concerns lurking in our food. These days, many are worried about pesticides, pollutants, and additives in our food, as well as genetic manipulation in the plants and animals that wind up on our plates.
Even the chemicals used in food containers have given cause for concern. However, a watchful eye goes a long way in protecting yourself from these possible threats. You can reduce your—and your family’s—exposure to foods that may be a worry. And you can run your kitchen so germs will have less chance to intrude into your food. Here’s what you should know before serving your next meal.
Do Pesticides and Other Chemicals Harm?
The remarkable productivity of modern agriculture depends to a large degree on a wide array of complex chemicals. These include fertilizers and pesticides applied to crops, antibiotics and hormones given to livestock, and additives included in animal feed. In North America, these chemical solutions provide an abundance of food at a very low cost. Inevitably, though, most crops retain traces of pesticides, and animal products may contain somewhat larger amounts.
Because high doses of certain pesticides have been linked to health problems in animals, it is not surprising that North Americans are concerned that residues of them in foods we eat could cause birth defects, neurological diseases, and even cancer. Environmental pollutants in the air, water, and soil—heavy metals such as mercury and toxic compounds such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxins—may also make their way into the food supply.Just because traces of a substance are there, however, doesn’t mean they’re harmful.
The risk to your health depends not only on the toxicity of a substance, but on the extent and type of exposure you receive. In both the U.S. and Canada, pesticides are among the most strictly regulated chemical products, and food surveys find that North Americans have very low overall exposure to pesticide residues.