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Is food dangerous?

It’s not a comforting thought but a lot of the food we put on our plates to eat is not safe. Of course, the marketing firms that sell us food would never want to talk about the problems in public. Their job is to highlight the good side, not the dark side, of food. But the national statistics tell a different story. The reality comes under two rather different headings. The first is all about food poisoning. Every now and again, you will see muted stories in the media reporting the recall of produce suspected of being the source of an E.Coli. Campylobacter or Salmonella outbreak. Most of the time, we ignore it. So, some bacteria was in the water used to irrigate the fields and the tomatoes made a few people sick. Except this is not something affecting a few people. According to the National Institutes of health, there are about 76 million cases of food poisoning every year. Put another way, you stand about a 1 in 3 chance of a bacterial infection every time you eat.

Now, in one sense, we can justify being calm about the risks because we have no choice. The industrial approach to stocking the shelves in our local stores with food is not interested in safety unless it clearly affects profits. Look around. There are no public demonstrations calling for government action, no right wing rants against farmers. So there is no investment in making food production safer. That makes it all the more ironic that the latest story about food poisoning should be about a popular, ready-to-drink, weight loss product. Regardless of flavor or date of manufacture, Unilever are quietly recalling every can currently out there in the market. The FDA has found evidence that the manufacturing process has been defective. Millions of cans have been contaminated with bacteria likely to cause diarrhea and vomiting. This busts the myth that processing food kills the bacteria.

The second darker side of food is the carbohydrate content. As almost everyone is aware, the majority of people around the world are overweight. In developed countries like the US, the obesity rate is reaching epidemic proportions. Given the clear medical evidence linking excessive weight to serious diseases and early death, it is reassuring that more people are considering a change to their diets. Eating smaller portions of more healthy food is a good first step to losing weight. However, Unilever’s recall of its leading diet product is a symptom of a different problem. People who want to lose weight have become the target of manufacturers eager to sell a range of weight loss products. Sadly, not all those products are effective or safe.

Here is a simple, uncontroversial statement. Diet products do not have to be approved by the FDA before they are sold. Drugs like acomplia do have to be tested to prove their safety and effectiveness. No-one has ever got food poisoning from a drug. So, if you want to control your appetite and feel comfortable on a lower calorie diet, buy acomplia. As to the food, you should consider switching to organic. It is more expensive but usually safer. Finally, join a political movement to encourage farmers and manufacturers to improve safety standards. Losing weight through diarrhea and vomiting is unpleasant.