From salmonella to e coli to mercury: The economics of tainted food

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On Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that researchers have found mercury in several samples of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The cheap sweetener, which is used in foods ranging from pickles to jellies to sodas, has long been under attack for contributing to America's obesity epidemic. Now, however, it also appears that the industrial process used to generate the substance may also contribute significant amounts of the poisonous metal to the finished product.

Mercury poisoning can cause significant damage to the brain, kidney, and lungs, and can lead to sensory impairment and loss of coordination. While the toxic metal has long been associated with fish consumption, this is the first time that it has been connected to HFCS. However, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid, which are used to help make the syrup, are often produced by mixing brine with electrified mercury. While most of the mercury is removed in the production process, some has apparently found its way into the finished HFCS. In fact, of twenty HFCS samples that the researchers studied, nine contained mercury.

Researchers are expanding their studies to determine the extent to which mercury has found its way into HFCS. In the meantime, this situation raises the question of how ingredients like mercury-laden HFCS, melamine-enhanced chocolate, E. coli-infected lettuce, or salmonella-enriched peanut butter continue to find their way to America's plates, lunchboxes, dog dishes, and baby bottles. Part of the problem is that, in the search for inexpensive food, consumers are often willing to go for the lowest-priced option, rather than more-reliable, higher-priced brands. On a broader context, though, it seems like consumers should be able to count on the FDA to ensure that their food isn't poisoned. One reason for our numerous recent outbreaks is the massive cuts that the agency has had to absorb. Between 2003 and 2005, for example, overseas shipments of food have increased by almost 50%, while the number of inspectors to screen them has decreased by about 15%. Under these circumstances, it hardly seems surprising that more and more tainted food is slipping through the cracks.

As the food industry becomes increasingly international, various countries will have to deal with the fact that our respective food preparation standards (not to mention our respective physiologies) are vastly different and have a major effect on our ability to withstand foodborne illness. On a national basis, however, unless the U.S. devotes a lot more money to food inspection, these recent outbreaks are only the beginning of what is bound to become a significant health crisis. In the meantime, I'm going to read labels, try to uncover where my food comes from, and vigorously wash all my produce!

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