Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food

The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food
Author: Heli Perrett, PhD
Publisher: The Experiment (2010)

Do you worry about the food you eat? Not the calories, fat content, allergy risk or carbon footprint, but the safety of your dinner menu every night? Parasites, bacteria, viruses and chemicals are all present in the culinary world, from the farms and processing plants to the delivery trucks and store shelves. Even the home and restaurant kitchens are not immune from the dangers that are exposed to our food every day. But what are the most significant risks, why, and who is responsible for controlling them? Heli Perrett, a former senior technical advisor at the World Bank, professor and sculptural artist examines these concerns in The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food.

Approaching this book, I’ll admit that I was a little jaded in my expectations. After two years of intensive food and nutrition management and a third in holistic health and nutrition, I was fairly aware of the dangers in “risky foods” that existed (or lurked as the case may be, depending on whom you talk to). The problem with a book like Safe Food is that because regulations, outbreaks, health cautions and even the banning or allowing the sale of a product change so quickly, by the time it hits the store the information within may well have changed. While Perrett makes a good point regarding the risk of Mad Cow Disease in beef, she only specified Canadian cattle were the sole problem, rather than sharing the blame with the US and UK herds. The melamine fiasco in China is labelled as food terrorism, and she stresses how it “can happen so easily” (p. 199). Although it is risky to consume unpasteurized dairy, the author gives warnings regarding the consumption of yogurts with “live bacterial cultures” (p. 181) is less safe than more typical American-style, heat treated yogurts. I take exception to this particular mention because it is the very live bacteria in the yogurt which makes it such a nutritious choice. Far from causing infections and other ill effects, the organisms (Acidophilus and Bacillus in particular) compete with the overgrowth of toxin-creating organisms in the gut and “tone” the immune system to respond readily, preventing those issues as well as many others [1]. Those who were not aware of this would likely start at the words “live bacteria” and swear off the food forever. While Perrett is correct in her statement that canned produce, by virtue of the pasteurization process, contains almost no risk of bacterial infection (p. 48), it is at the expense of the nutrients found in most fresh or frozen goods. Modern grinds of meat (i.e. hamburger) are truly less at-risk for parasites and bacteria (p. 143), but what Safe Food omits is that these parasites are often eliminated by treatment with commercial ammonia [2].
I appreciated the author’s attention to the importance of industry labelling and guide to common “buzzwords” and phrases like “COOL” (Country Of Origin Labelling), “Certified Organic”, “Natural” and “Hormone Free” .This knowledge is truly of value to the average consumer, who may only be concerned with the general contents of their shopping choices and not each individual “what if” scenario in a meal. I also found each chapter’s inclusion of regulating bodies (or “Who Keeps it Safe?”) both intriguing and worth noting specifics of, especially when “mixed” products are concerned. “Try Regulating a Sausage” (p. 134) details the difficulty in controlling the entire process’ safety and consistency, with mention of the existing regulations as to the type or grade of meat, fat and filler contents, and type of casings. Sushi lovers like myself, anyone planning a pregnancy, or those with youngsters who eat seafood regularly will want to bookmark Perrett’s list of mercury levels in fish (p. 110), especially those on the coasts (since over 2500 pounds of the metal are dumped off the shores of San Francisco each year). Although I’m not overly concerned over the potential toxicity of the herbs and spices in my cupboard, Safe Food’s chapter on the subject (p. 267) is an interesting read in itself.

I did find it a bit odd – and in a way a bit contradictory – that after compiling this tome of personal risk “ratings”, the cause and reduction of food dangers, and the specific risks in produce, fish and shellfish, meat and poultry, dairy, eggs, grains, beans, nuts and even herbs and spices the author spends almost four pages convincing the reader that it isn’t all that much of a concern. Her final paragraph in the chapter “There Are Smart Ways to Cut your Food Risks” (p.28) includes the line “don’t let concern about the safety of your food become a straitjacket, unless it really has to be” (p. 32) and the mention that we consumers should, above all, enjoy our food. Her backpedalling in this section of Safe Food causes me to doubt how confident she is of her own statements, regardless of what her research may show. This is especially due to my discovery of her background not as a nutritionist, chemist, doctor or food scientist, but as a World Bank advisor, artist and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy Studies. Unfortunately, the list of references that would allow the reader to peruse Perrett’s comments is missing from the back of the book, although the author does include a list for “further reading” (which is not necessarily where she gleaned her own information).

While it is true that being an informed consumer is being a wise consumer, The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food borders on the edge of fear-mongering in Heli Perrett’s quest to pick every nit in the food-consuming world. While there is good, valid information in this work, it is difficult to separate the significant dangers from those which generate the most “wow” factor in an audience without prior information, thus negating the need for much of this book’s writing.

Available on Amazon
[1] University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (February 3, 2010). "'Good' bacteria keep immune system primed to fight future infections". ScienceDaily. Retrieved  September 22, 2011 from

[2] Michael Moss (December 30, 2009). “Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned”. New York Times. Retrieved September 22, 2011 from