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Originally published Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 6:42 PM

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Food for thought on what we eat

Weighing the risks and rewards of our food chain.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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We shouldn't stop with labeling GMOs. We also should label where our food comes from... MORE
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My position on food safety hasn’t changed in years. All I want is to eat a meal without it sickening or killing me, a seemingly simple proposition that gets more complicated by the year.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are the latest complication. When I consider Initiative 522, which would require labels on some GMO foods identifying them as such in grocery stores, given our food history, it seems a reasonable measure.

Nothing in the current science has me worried about GMO food, but health warnings often lag behind eating habits and changes in food. I didn’t used to worry that chowing down on bacon most mornings might shorten my life either.

Actually, I didn’t think much about food safety when I went off to college and made my own food decisions for the first time. I could pull something from the fridge, sniff it, see if there was mold on it or if it was green but not a vegetable and make a decision about whether to eat it.

Identifying what’s good to eat has evolved for me as food after food has been determined to be problematic.

I try to keep up and do what I can to eat sensibly, but I can’t sniff out genetic modification, so a little help identifying it could be a good thing.

I’m not saying that genetic engineering is necessarily bad for a person’s health, but we don’t know a couple of things. We don’t know the long-term effects of eating food that has foreign genetic material added to it. And we don’t know where the practice of DNA tinkering will go if it’s not under public scrutiny.

Eating has never been without some risk from the acquisition, identification, preservation of foods. But the more efficient people get at producing and marketing food, the more we seem to create health risks.

We get more abundant food and lower prices, but also sometimes less nutrient-rich food and food that’s more marketable, but less healthy, or food that is contaminated because the most efficient production practices aren’t always the safest.

Tuesday, two Colorado farmers pleaded guilty to six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. They sold cantaloupes tied to a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people.

A big peanut-processing plant, about 20 miles from where I grew up in Eastern New Mexico, shut down this year because of illness caused by its products. A salmonella outbreak sickened people in 20 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and because one of the products was peanut butter, most of the people sickened were children.

No one intends for this stuff to happen, but it does and with regularity, because safety likely isn’t the top priority.

Foster Farms chicken is under scrutiny now because of an outbreak of salmonella that sickened 300 people, mostly in California, yet the company didn’t recall the chicken, saying instead that consumers should just cook it thoroughly. A Los Angeles Times editorial about the outbreak noted that Sweden has eliminated salmonella problems by stricter oversight of industry.

Food doesn’t have to be such a big problem, but we keep making it one, by choosing productivity and marketability over consumer health.

According to the CDC, foodborne illness sickens 9.4 million and kills 1,300 people in the United States each year.

And then there are foods that don’t have to be contaminated to cause harm, foods that if you eat enough of them, contribute to type 2 diabetes or heart disease, for instance. Food is a problem for us in multiple ways.

GMOs are new, or at least the way the modification is done is new (genetic engineering), but nearly everything we eat has been modified by people. Tomatoes, corn, the animals we eat have been selectively bred for generations upon generations to make them more to our liking, and that process continues.

We also rely heavily on pesticides and antibiotics to our detriment.

And we process many foods excessively, doctoring them with high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, salt and fats of various kinds. Some things we ingest are not exactly foods at all; a lot of snacks fall into that category, and soft drinks, too.

GMO foods are the least of my concerns right now, but give industry time and that may change as it has with so many foods.

Who knows when some line will be crossed?

But having labels in place now might nudge producers to be more careful because what they do can affect their brand more easily if it is labeled; producers will want to protect the reputation of GMO foods. And a label may prompt more people to find out what GMO means for the foods they want to buy.

More information is usually better than less.

And as long as I can’t trust parts of the food chain to do what’s right for my health, I need to know enough to make choices for myself.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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