Is Our Food Safe to Eat?

Manila Bulletin, December 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Is Our Food Safe to Eat?


(Reaction to the paper on Food Safety presented by Dr. Alicia O. Lustre, Director of the Food Development Center, at the 76th General Membership Assembly of the National Research Council of the Philippines, held at the Manila Hotel on March 11, 2009 with the theme “Science Beyond Science: Bringing Social Dimensions to Basic Research.”)On a day-to-day basis, this is a question we do not usually ask. We assume that our food is safe, that is, if we have access to it, in the first place.This reaction paper presents seven social issues with respect to food safety:1. Food safety for whom and which food? Are we concerned about food safety for infants, children, adolescents, adults or the elderly? We need to segment the population according to stage in the life cycle because food consumption patterns are different and so is the level of risk associated with the frequently consumed food for each group. What does food safety mean for the segmented groups? For example, are fat-laden hamburgers safe for children even if these have been prepared in a sanitary way? For infants, of course the major food intake is milk and preferably breast milk so our babies do not ingest a substance called melamine.2. In an unequal society, access to food is also unequal, not only in quantity but also in quality and safety.Because a third of our population is poor, and the major portion of their income is spent on food, who looks after the safety of what they eat? Is cheap NFA rice safe to eat? What about street foods such as “helmet,” “adidas,” “IUD” or “isaw,” “Beta-max,” “kwek-kwek,” “tokneneng,” fish balls, “sago-sa-malamig” served in repeatedly used glasses; “double-dead meat,” etc.? These are the foods commonly patronized by low-income groups. These foods do not carry labels which describe what they contain. Organically-grown vegetables, fruits, rice, chicken, eggs, etc., are advertised and sold as the ultimate in safety because they are supposed to be fertilizer- and pesticide-free. Ironically such “pristine” foods also tend to be more expensive; “unguaranteed organic” and are quite often grown for export or for the high-end market. What kind of fruits and vegetables do ordinary citizens get?3. In assessing food safety, at what stage in the production, distribution, consumption stage in the food chain do unsafe practices come in? Who sets the standard for what is safe, and who exercises the regulatory function? What are people’s perceptions and definitions of what is safe and unsafe especially if the indicators of safety are not visible to the naked eye and we need laboratory exams to determine their presence or absence?4. With respect to source and destination, what kinds of foods are we concerned about foods for domestic consumption, export, subsistence, local market, long or short shelf-life? Are they land- or water-based? Where does the food come from in terms of geography or ecology? Does it make a difference if tahong comes from Cavite, Malabon, etc.? Why are safety standards higher for export than for local consumption? Don’t the locals deserve equal quality?5. What about foods sold as good for health, beauty, longevity and virility? While they may do no harm, there is a cost for no positive benefits. The psychology of the advertising behind such food supplements is worth researching especially if the evidence for their effectiveness is not in evidence and yet people keep buying and taking them. In the meantime, celebrity endorsers enjoy their millions in endorser fees.6. The biological, cultural, political, geo-political, religious, ethical, legal, economic and environmental aspects of food safety are epitomized in the arguments for and against the biosafety of GMOs like Bt corn, soybeans, tomatoes, rice, etc.

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