Public confidence in the nation's food supply has been shaken in recent months amid continuing reports of contamination, poisonings and heightened cancer risks.
Questions now linger over the actual health threat posed by problems as varied as harmful bacteria or exposure to pesticide residues in food.
Answers, however, are elusive because many of the food safety issues remain under debate by scientists, health officials, consumer advocates and industry representatives.
Virtually all the major players in this continuing controversy concede that the food supply is safe. Yet, there are many who express reservations about the actual degree of wholesomeness to be found at the nation's dinner tables.
Federal officials, for instance, acknowledge that food-borne illnesses are increasing. Some of these infections, particularly among those with compromised immune systems, can be fatal.
Put in perspective, however, food-related deaths are minuscule in comparison to the number of fatalities attributed to the nation's leading killers such as automobile accidents, lung cancer or heart disease.
Even so, the thought that individuals can become seriously ill because of some unseen danger lurking in food has unsettled the public, according to an opinion poll taken earlier this year by a food industry trade group.
Only 23% of those questioned in a national survey conducted in January said they were completely confident that food available in the nation's supermarkets was safe to eat. The figure dropped to 19% by the end of April, or a month after the Alar in apples controversy as well as the Chilean grape poisoning scare occurred.
"There is more awareness of food safety today," said Douglas Archer, microbiology director for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "People are more conscious of it and so is the media. . . . Ten to 15 years ago many of these incidents would be overlooked. Today each little (outbreak/poisoning) is brought to the public's attention."
Defining the nuances of food safety is complex because the field encompasses so many distinct aspects with each commodity posing different problems.
Often considered the greatest threat to the public are microbiological contaminants, such as bacteria, because of their ability to rapidly cause illness in humans. Another volatile ingredient in the controversy is agriculture's pesticide usage, considered a more long-term health risk.
Exacerbating the overall problem, however, is the human factor. Namely, poor handling practices that can be found virtually anywhere in the food chain, including farms, meat processing plants, supermarkets, restaurants or in the home.
"Food handling is the thing that has the biggest potential for making people sick in an acute way," said Dr. Shirley Fannin, associate deputy director of disease control for the Los Angeles County Health Services Department. "Bacteria and parasites that are transferred to humans from improperly handled food gives us more illnesses than we can count."
Fannin's view also was echoed by a top California health official familiar with the state's various contamination incidents.
"You have to recognize that some food is intrinsically contaminated. In fact, no food is sterile," said Dr. Ben Werner, chief epidemiologist with the California Health Services Department in Berkeley. "There are harmful organisms and human pathogens in food and it behooves the food (preparer) to eliminate them."
However, consumer advocates argue that more should be done to remove pathogens from food at the manufacturing level and, thus, lower the risk that poor handling practices in the home might lead to illness.
"It is irresponsible to take the position that it is the consumers' responsibility alone to ensure food safety," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy in Washington. "Our changing way of processing food presents hazards that are hidden. . . . Certainly, consumers have a role in protecting their families and proper handling is a component, but only one. The food has to come to market in a safe and wholesome manner."
Ensuring that health risks from the food supply are minimized falls primarily to the federal government. But responsibility for food safety is divided among several agencies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates animal byproducts through programs such as its meat inspection service. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for all other foods as well as additives. The Environmental Protection Agency determines which farm chemicals are safe to use on crops and what residue levels should be allowed on food after harvest. And the National Marine Fisheries Service oversees the seafood industry through a voluntary inspection program.
Each of these agencies has a different, and sometimes conflicting, approach to regulation. Confusion can be compounded by hundreds of local and state agencies also overseeing the food industry.