Food safety is a tricky thing. Sorting through the latest studies, determining their significance, swaying public opinion or opinions of officials is all time consuming and difficult. Sometimes it feels like nothing is clearly safe or unsafe, but rather somewhere in the middle, with risks on either side no matter what you do.
More often than not, consumers hear about foods, additives, or supplements that are allowed in the United States but banned overseas. It becomes a big scandal for a week or two, with heavy news and media coverage and a lot of behind-the-scenes panicking of food companies issuing recalls, before it blows over and the news cycle moves on to the next issue.
But it’s easy to forget that this issue goes both ways. There are items that are common in other countries that are banned or restricted here by one agency or another, at the federal or state levels. Here are a few such delicacies that are not allowed in the U.S. for safety reasons.
Way back in 1864, Louis Pasteur discovered a way to kill off bacteria in milk by heating the milk to a specific temperature for a certain period of time. Thus, pasteurization was born.
Pasteurization of milk kills off bacteria that may cause any number of potential health problems, including:
- Typhoid fever
In many states, it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk (raw milk) for human consumption. According to the FDA, raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illnesses, and 13 times likely to require hospitalization than pasteurized milk. This is especially true for young, pregnant, and immunocompromised people.
But the story is quite different across Europe. France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria, and Netherlands all sell raw milk for human consumption. In fact, they have even set up vending machines that can distribute raw milk 24/7, similar to how Americans buy soda.
Proponents of raw milk argue that it helps with everything from diarrhea to childhood behavior issues. They say the pasteurization process denatures proteins, destroys micronutrients, and kills off good bacteria.
Note that raw milk sales are not regulated at the federal level in the United States, and each state differs greatly in its allowance of raw milk sales. About one-fifth of states completely ban the sale of unpasteurized milk; the rest have varying laws, with some allowing it to be sold in retail stores, while others only allow it to be sold in producer-owned stores or on farms where it is produced.
Haggis is the quintessential food representative of Scotland. When traditionally made, a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs are seasoned with spices and salt, mixed with oatmeal, and boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.
There are a couple of problems the United States has with this. For one thing, we still don’t import lamb from Scotland due to a ban put in place in the 1990s during the mad cow disease scare in the United Kingdom and how it could be connected to a similar disease in sheep. There has been some talk about lifting that ban, which could happen as soon as sometime this year, but as of now the ban is still fully in place.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not consider the lungs of any animal acceptable for human consumption – and there is no foreseeable plan to change that regulation. So even if the ban on importing Scottish sheep is lifted, any “haggis” that is sold in the U.S. would have to exclude the sheep’s lungs.
As much as our half-Scottish president, President Trump, would love to serve traditional haggis in the White House, he (along with the rest of us) may have to wait awhile.
Cyclamate is an artificial sweetener about 30-50 times as sweet as sugar, and it is cheaper than a lot of other sweeteners. Because of this, about 130 countries around the world use cyclamate. While it was previously allowed in the U.S. from the early 1950, it was banned by the FDA in 1980 and has remained unavailable since.
One study found that cyclamate was related to bladder tumors in rats – but these results have not been replicated in mice or in people. The controversy is based on metabolism. When cyclamate is metabolized, it turns into cyclohexylamine, a toxic compound that can lead to testicular atrophy.
Naturally, as soon as testicular atrophy was mentioned, the product was banned in the United States. But many people either don’t metabolize cyclamate or don’t consume enough of it to cause damage even if it is metabolized. Even the FDA admits that there is not enough evidence to prove the cancerous effects of cyclamate, but the agency has nonetheless taken a “better safe than sorry” approach.
Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. But fruit is safe right? After all it is natural, and isn’t everything natural safe to eat?
The ackee has developed a defense mechanism known as Jamaican vomiting sickness – which doesn’t stop merely at vomiting but could lead to a coma or even death. The cause of this sickness is the high levels of hypoglycin A, a toxic amino acid that can damage the kidneys and liver, found in the fruit.
When fully ripened and processed correctly, ackee fruit will lose significant amounts of hypoglycin A, bringing it down to levels that can be safely consumed (below 100 ppm). Certain canned and frozen ackee products are available in the United States, but they are strictly tested and processed. Only fruit ripened on the tree can be used, and seeds and rinds cannot be present. This leaves a small portion that is safe to consume when the fruit is fully ripe.
This one is not so much about food safety as the protection of our environment and reducing cruelty toward the animals found there.
Shark fins – specifically shark fin soup – is a cultural delicacy found in China. As the Chinese population grows and influences expand, so does the reach of this soup. Culturally, the soup symbolizes defeating a powerful enemy and is believed to have medicinal properties.
However, the process of harvesting shark fins to make the soup is pretty horrible. Since the fins are worth more than the shark as a whole, the fins are cut off and the shark is released back into the ocean, where it often suffocates or bleeds to death.
Sharks reproduce slowly and certain species are being hit especially hard by this kind of hunting. Therefore, according to a law passed by Congress in 2010 known as the Shark Conservation Act, sharks caught in water of the United States are required to have their fins when they reach the shore. While this does not completely eliminate shark deaths, it does make the terrible process of “finning” less of a detrimental impact on shark populations.
Be Careful When Traveling
It is one thing to know that some foods are considered unsafe in the United States. that may be thought to be perfectly fine in other countries. However, it is even more important to be aware of these differences when traveling to other countries – or, as in the case with raw milk, even to other states within the U.S.!
Of course, one of the joys of traveling to another country is enjoying the local cuisine. If you are planning a trip to some international destination, be sure to do your due diligence and learn what is safe and what may be better to avoid. You and your loved ones will be grateful in the long run!