A roundup of Explainer columns about food contamination.

A roundup of Explainer columns about food contamination.

A roundup of Explainer columns about food contamination.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 21 2008 7:07 AM

The Globavore's Dilemma

Your questions about food contamination, with answers from the archives.

Milk. Click image to expand.
A baby drinks formula

The Food and Drug Administration opened a new branch in Beijing on Wednesday in response to a spate of recent high-profile contamination scares. Meanwhile, the embarrassed Chinese government has promised to tighten inspection standards in the wake of the ongoing poisoned baby formula scandal. And last week, the United States implemented an "import alert" for any food products made in China to be sure they're both dairy- and melamine-free. Here's an Explainer roundup of all the ways your food can make you sick.

So is China the world capital of contaminated food?

Advertisement

Britain seems to be giving it quite a run for its money. In recent years, the country's cattle has fallen victim to mad cow disease, bluetongue disease, and foot-and-mouth disease. In part, the outbreaks are just bad luck. They also have something to do with the country's status as a global hub: Heathrow Airport has the most international traffic in the world, and airline-food waste is sometimes processed into the food that's fed to cattle, posing a massive risk for disease. (For more on Britain's meat problem, see this Explainer from 2007.)

In 2007, workers at a U.S. pork processing plant all reportedtroubling symptoms, including weakness and dizziness. All were working in the area where the pig's brains were being liquefied. Foodies everywhere wondered: Is it safe to eat pork brains?

Yes. There's no evidence that the digestion of pork brains will do you any harm, but the inhalation of them seems to be a different story. Breathing in the brain tissue triggers an immune response that leads to the sort of symptoms experienced by the factory workers. Like all meat, pork brains can be contaminated in various ways, but there's no evidence that the substance itself is bad for humans. (For more on the innards-and-outs, see this Explainer from 2008.)

To be on the safe side, I'll avoid dairy, meat, and other animal products, but nothing's safer than a PB-and-J sandwich. Right?

Advertisement

Nope. In 2007, ConAgra-made peanut butter, including Peter Pan, caused an outbreak of salmonella, infecting hundreds of people. Animal products are the most likely foods to harbor salmonella bacteria. But vegetables and fruits can have it, too, if they're not washed properly and infected manure makes it onto the crop through water runoff or leaky waste lagoons—remember 2008's salmonella-infected tomato scare? Peanut butter isn't usually a high-risk food for salmonella outbreak, since the peanuts are roasted at super-high temperatures, but the germs can creep back in at the jarring stage of post-processing. (This Explainer from 2007 and this one from 2008 have more details on salmonella contamination.)

Will washing my fruits and veggies help cut down on diseases?

Yes, probably. A "thorough rinsing" can cut down on microbacteria by as much as 90 percent—the remaining decile of disease is lodged in grooves on the produce's surface or attached to it by electrostatic charges. The longer the bacteria stay on, the more attached they get. Washing is more helpful in getting rid of "spoilage bacteria"—giving something a rinse before putting it in the fridge might help make it last longer. (For more detail, read this Explainer from 2006.)

The United States isn't the only place in the world to snobbishly ban food imports. In fact, Europe won't let American chickens across the pond. Are they unsafe?

No, they just taste funny to the European palate. American birds are bathed in chlorine (or another bacteria killer), a stringent regulation that was put in place after E. coli scares and salmonella scares in the 1990s. That doesn't mean that they're redolent of a swimming pool, though—tests have found that chlorinated chicken doesn't begin to taste significantly worse than its nonchlorinated counterpart until it's been reheated several times. (For more on bad-tasting birds, see this Explainer from 2008.)

Poisoned babies have been grabbing the headlines lately, but last yearthe victims of contaminated Chinese imports were American cats and dogs. It turned out that we were putting bad wheat gluten from overseas into our pet food. Wait, imported wheat products? Isn't America the breadbasket of the world?

Yes, but other countries make cheaper gluten. Although we're the world's largest consumer of wheat gluten, just a handful of American companies produce it, and 80 percent of our supply comes from abroad. Europe has a lot of extra gluten since they use wheat starch (what's left over when you separate out the gluten) to make sweeteners. They've also got wheat subsidies in place, which lower the price still further. China has a smaller, but growing, share of the market. (For more on wheat gluten, check out this 2007 Explainer.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.