Understanding food science

As noted in class, ensuring that students, from K-12 to college, are science-literate is now recognized as one of the more important missions of our schools and universities.  Given all the issues we’ve discussed this semester, a list that includes organic foods, GMOs, food safety, obesity, and allergens, one can argue that food science literacy is particularly important.

Indeed, so important is this topic that the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences convened a workshop in Fall 2015 to address Food Literacy.  The proceedings (down-loadable for free) were then published earlier this year.

There were plenty of opinions on how to promote food literacy, from childhood education to training physicians.  Perhaps one of the main challenges was stated by one author as “how to deliver knowledge to people whose lives are too busy for them to take on any more chores”.

Credible food-in-the-news stories are published every day on-line and in print newspapers and magazines.  Yet the number of people who actually read those articles is probably a small percent of those that read or “hear about” what the Food Babe has to say.  This is the challenge in a nutshell.



Food science goes molecular

The topic for this week is one that will probably be new to most of you.  It’s called “Molecular Gastronomy”, and although you might not be at all familiar with this, it has been spreading across the cyber-globe.  There are cookbooks, websites, and restaurants that feature this cuisine.  Who knows, maybe it will even get to Nebraska before the end of the decade.  Until then, you will have to learn about in 280 class.



Crime and punishment

Of all the food issues discussed in class, perhaps the one that hits closest to home is food safety.  It’s important not only personally (who wants to spend a nice fall day in the bathroom), but also as professional food scientists.

Hopefully, you will eventually graduate and get a job in the food industry.  The worst think that can happen to a food company, whether it’s small or a large multinational, is to have one if its products implicated in a food poisoning outbreak.  That’s why knowledge about food microbiology, quality assurance plans like HACCP (to be discussed in class), and appropriate testing methods are so important.

The consequences of sending contaminated food into the marketplace can be significant.  Even if the contaminated food is detected before any consumer actually gets sick, recalls are very expensive.  If there is a disease outbreak, then civil law suits will surely follow.  The more serious the outbreak, the higher will be the cost.  It’s not unusual for a companies literally to go broke from food poisoning outbreaks.  This is true for larger companies, but especially so for small or family businesses.

Recently, it’s gotten worse for guilty companies.  In the past, criminal charges were rare and limited to fines.  In the past several years, however, federal authorities have asked the courts to sentence the company leaders to jail time.  This is especially the case when the outbreaks lead to serious illnesses or deaths.  Several examples have made the news.

In 2011, Listeria-contaminated cantaloupe from Colorado killed 33 people.  Three years later, the farmers (two brothers) were sentenced to five years’ probation (but no jail time) and six months home detention.  They were also fined $150,000 in restitution.

In 2010, a Salmonella outbreak in eggs sickened 2,000 people.  The producers were fined nearly $7 million in 2014, and earlier in 2015, the executives of Iowa-based Quality Egg were sentenced to three months in jail.

Then there is the most recent case of crime and punishment.  In 2009, nine people died and hundred became sick from eating peanut butter products made by Peanut Corp. of America that were contaminated with Salmonella.  The company knowingly released and distributed tainted products and concealed records.  As a result, the former owner was given a 28-year prison sentence.  Two other employees were also given jail time (3 years for one, 6 for the other).  This will certainly make others think twice before committing these sorts of crimes.



Thankful for food safety

This is the time of years when the food sections of nearly every newspaper will contain articles on food safety and tips to make sure your holidays are disease-free. No matter, the odds are there will be plenty of day-after stories of people eating undercooked turkey, raw oysters, or some other ill-prepared or contaminated food.

One of the questions we will address is who exactly is responsible for foodborne disease outbreaks. Is it the consumer who may not have followed the instructions? Or is it the manufacturer, processor, restaurant, or retailer who sold contaminated foods? What about the government who is supposed to keep us safe?

Another issue we will discuss concerns the issues of safety and the level of risk we are willing to assume. Can foods ever be 100% safe? What level of exposure is reasonable? If the government said no food (raw or otherwise) could contain any Salmonella or Campylobacter, none of us will be eating turkey next week.



Pop taxes

The voters have voted, and they have made their choice. No, I‘m not referring to the Trump upset, but rather to the 4 ballot initiatives on soda pop taxes.  Starting next year, it will cost a bit more to buy soda in three California cities, San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, as well as in Boulder, Colorado.  Is this the start of even more such initiatives? We’ll see.



Food safety has my vote

As noted in the previous post, there are several very specific food-related issues that will be on voters’ ballots in various states or cities.  However, nationally, food has hardly been mentioned at all.  Indeed, the candidates for President have not discussed (in public at least) anything specifically related to food, agriculture, or nutrition (except that they like the food in whatever state they are campaigning).

Nonetheless, food-related issues are relevant in several major respects.  Immigration policy will have a major impact on agriculture as much of the fruit and produce we eat is harvested by guest workers from other countries.  More restrictive immigration laws will also affect the restaurant and food service industry who depend on foreign-born workers.  Likewise, minimum wage laws could certainly affect this industry.

As food scientists, perhaps the most serious concern is whether the next leader of the free world will continue to support regulations and agencies responsible for ensuring food safety.  This has been one of the few issues for which bipartisanship exist.  The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed by Congress in 2010 and signed by President Obama in 2011, is evidence of this support for food safety regulations.

Polling surveys indicate that both parties support food safety regulations (a bit more by Democrats than by Republicans), but overall, this has been a nonpartisan issue.  Whether food and water safety regulations will be subject to the temporary moratorium advocated by Mr. Trump, is not clear.  Food safety is just as important to farmers, processors, and the food industry as it is to consumers.  Thus, there may well be bipartisan resistance to any effort to reduce food safety regulations.



Food on the ballot

On Tuesday, voters in America will make decisions other than which candidates they dislike more than the others.  There are also many local and state-wide ballot initiatives, including several that involve food-related issues.

As we discussed in class, proposals for soda pop taxes have passed in only two cities, Berkeley and Philadelphia. On Tuesday, residents of Boulder, San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, California will decide whether to impose a 1 to 2 cent per ounce tax on pop and several other sweetened beverages.

In Fairfax, Virginia, there is a ballot measure that would impose a 4% tax on prepared meals and beverages purchased from restaurants and grocery stores.  This measure, however, seems to be more about raising revenue than improving health.  Corporate farming and animal welfare measures are also on ballots in several states.

According to the very useful website, perhaps the oddest initiative was in California.  Called, the “California ‘Shellfish Suppression’ Initiative”, it failed to get the required number of signatures and was not placed on the ballot.  Had it done so and passed, it would have made “sale or consumption of shellfish a serious felony punishable by a $666,000 fine per occurrence and/or prison sentence of up to six years, six months, and six days.”

Part (a) of the proposed law stated “Shellfish are a monstrous evil that Almighty God, giver of freedom and liberty, commands us in Leviticus to suppress. They also smell bad.”

I guess someone really doesn’t shellfish.



The $99 gut microbiome

We’ve been talking in class about the bacteria that live in your intestinal tract – how they get there, their role in various diseases, and how to shift the microbial population to promote better health.  Of course, before trying to change your gut bacteria, it might help to know what’s actually there.  Doing so is not as difficult as you might think.  In fact, if you have $99, you can have your gut analyzed and get a profile of your very own microbiota.

So far, more than 6,000 people have joined the “American Gut Project”.  It’s very easy to participate – they send you a sample kit, you collect the sample, mail it back, and wait for the results.  One has to be careful, however, about interpreting the data.  For example, how would you react if you learned you were harboring bacteria associated with particular diseases?  Bioethicists are also concerned about privacy issues.  Nonetheless, collecting data from thousands of people is great for scientists who are studying the gut.


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