Stunning advances in food technology are drawing consumers ever closer to what has traditionally been considered the Holy Grail of food safety — a virtually risk-free food supply.
It's a quantum leap that, in recent years, has been driven in large part by breakthroughs in genetic research. Recently, for example, scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service announced the decoding of a particularly pernicious organism, Campylobacter jejuni, one of the deadliest pathogens associated with food.
This is only the beginning. Even bigger advances lay ahead, bringing us closer to a future in which food-borne illness associated with pathogens, such as campylobacter and Salmonella, will become faint memories, much as we think of polio and smallpox. Or will they?
Scientific advances, after all, often offer as many challenges as solutions, and food safety is likely to be no exception. There's no doubt breakthroughs in food technology have benefited countless millions of humans. But the price of this advance could be an increasing shift of the burden of food safety away from individuals to food processors. That's not necessarily a good thing.
What we'll get is a food supply consisting of increasingly more precooked and prepackaged products. And, increasingly, consumers will have little to do other than unwrap these products and place them into the microwave or oven before serving.
It's a prospect that may initially appeal to those among us who are overworked and overscheduled, and have little time for the intricacies of food planning and preparation. Over time, though, the novelty may begin wearing off as more of us understand the implications of this approach.
Food preparation, after all, is a lot like gardening or home decorating. It's one of those unsung pleasures in life that allow us, in our small way, to shape the world according to our own personal whims.
If zero-tolerance, risk-free food means giving up this freedom, how many of us will be willing to pay the price? Are we really prepared to forego the small delight of making our child's birthday cake from scratch or whipping up a round of yuletide eggnog for friends and family merely to avoid the remote risk of tainted egg yolks?
This raises another question: In our zeal to develop a virtually foolproof food supply, could it be we're simply setting ourselves up for an even bigger fall years down the road?
One of the ironies associated with this emerging food safety system is that while it's infinitely safer from the consumer standpoint, it's much more vulnerable to the risks of human error during processing. Even as overall risks of food-borne illness decline, there will still exist the potential for those rare instances when one mistake in processing could lead to the sickening of hundreds of thousands of consumers.
Granted, in exchange for a far safer food supply, many experts, not to mention consumers, would gladly accept these risks. They may be justified.
Still, the price could be high: a virtually risk-free food supply in exchange for a system over which individual consumers have far less control. It is yet another reminder of the fact that new technology, while liberating in many respects, nonetheless comes with a price.
Jean Weese is an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food scientist and Auburn University associate professor of nutrition and food science.
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