Serving Up Safety Amid Food Scares

Diet trends make it tricky enough for Americans to decide what to put on their plates every day, but the bombardment of news about food-borne diseases has turned eating into an extreme sport.

Chickens have the flu, cows are mad and farmed fish are swimming with dangerous chemicals, according to various studies. But how are restaurants and food markets staying in the black if such an abundance of their products are routinely cited as carriers of disease?

Xavier Teixido, owner of Harry's Savoy Grill (search) and Harry's Seafood Grill (search), both in Wilmington, Del., said communicating with his staff and vendors is key — and he gets a lot of feedback from customers when food is in the news.

"When we get these reports, first thing we do is brief the staff and talk to our suppliers to make sure we are all in compliance," he said. "If we thought something was unsafe we wouldn't purchase it in the fist place."

Steven Grover, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association (search), said the influx of food borne disease hasn't changed, but the attention they get in the media has increased.

"Food safety issues used to come up once or twice a year, but now they are almost weekly," he said. "We now have 24-7 news coverage. Many hazards put forth aren't really hazards at all when you look at the context but they are shocking and unusual."

In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) announced a 23 percent overall drop in bacterial food-borne illnesses since 1996.

"While we seem to be assailed with these constant food worries, it's just perception," said Grover.

The most recent food-related problem to hit the United States came at the end of February, when bird flu was found in chickens on a South Texas farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the strain poses little threat to people and is a different virus than the one that killed more than 20 people in Asia.

Shoppers who often sought organic alternatives said they are even more confident in their choices now.

"I prefer to know where my food is coming from whenever I can," shopper Stephanie Weisenbach of Des Moines, Iowa, said. "What's happened the last few months — it's just kind of reaffirmed my decisions."

Some, like Susan Primm of Nashville, Tenn., think the government could do more, especially in the handling of mass-produced chicken and beef.

"I believe it is important for us to raise animals in a healthy way," she said after shopping for groceries. "When animals are not respected and not raised in a healthy way, they get sick."

The bird flu scare came on the heels of the United States' first reported case of mad cow disease, which was found in a Holstein from Washington state that was slaughtered at the end of 2003. People who eat processed beef products tainted by mad cow can develop a deadly brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (search).

Teixido said he thought the report of mad cow in America would be a "state of emergency" but he was surprised by the response in his restaurant.

"Our beef sales have not been affected at all," he said. "They feel that if it were really bad it would've been pulled off the market ... If it's on your menu, it's healthy to eat."

And some diners confirm what Teixido has observed in his restaurant.

"Mad cow doesn't bother me," said Ohio State University chemistry professor Barbara Pappas. "The probability is so remote. A person smoking next to me is more dangerous."

Mad cow disease is a "perceived food safety issue," said Grover. "We've never had a transmission in the U.S. but everyone's worried about it. It's more of an animal health issue. I would rather worry about the things we know cause food borne illness."

Grover pointed out that real food threats often hover under the media's radar because they aren't as exotic.

"Salmonella is the number one food borne killer, but that's not getting headlines," he said. "The ones that get reported in the news media aren't anywhere near the top. Unfortunately salmonella isn't sexy or isn't new."

In January, a scientific study found that farm-raised salmon contain far more potentially cancer-causing pollutants than wild salmon because their feed is contaminated with it.

Though it's double the price of farmed, Teixido said only line-caught salmon is served in his restaurants because the quality is superior. But that's the only change he's made to his menu.

"We haven't modified how we buy poultry and we've always been sticklers on beef."

Yet the coincidental timing of all the food scares made some consumers think twice about what they eat.

"I feel like eating fruits and vegetables is definitely safer," said Cindy Hader of North Richland Hills, Texas. "But it's a sad situation in our country when people are buying special foods to avoid poisons and toxins."

But Grover said Americans should feel safe when they shop, and blamed the media for over-hyping food scares. "Nowadays trying to get real health messages to consumers is so difficult, they are flooded with messages."

The bottom line is eat up without worry, he said.

"We have the safest food supply in the history of man today. We are living longer and healthier lives because of it ... a large portion of that because our food is plentiful, bountiful and safe."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.