Imagine if your toothpaste made you deathly ill or if your dog died because his pet food made him sick. Recent headlines have been littered with stories about unapproved antibiotics in seafood, pet-sickening wheat gluten, and tainted toothpaste imported from China, causing many Americans to raise an eyebrow about the quality and safety of imported food.

Foodborne illnesses are still a cause for concern in the United States. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 6 million cases of food-related illness are reported in the U.S. each year, including 5,000 deaths. Here, a guide to understanding where your food comes from and how you can help protect yourself and your family.

Where Your Food Comes From

America is highly dependent imports of all kinds, and food is no exception. More than 130 countries ship food to the United States, with the biggest importers being China, Canada, and Mexico. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), imported food accounts for more than 10 percent of food consumption.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigations in China showed that in 2007 contaminated wheat gluten made it into American pet food, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of cats and dogs. In addition, 300 chickens, which had been bred for human consumption and fed the same food, were recalled. This recall was followed by another Chinese import contamination-this time toothpaste. In fact, more than a million tubes were tainted with a chemical used in antifreeze and were withdrawn from use.

China isn't the only source of America's foodborne problems. More than 6,000 cantaloupes imported from Costa Rica were recalled after it had been discovered that they had been contaminated with salmonella. In 2003, 25 people in the Pittsburgh area were sickened with hepatitis A from Mexican imported green onions, and in 2001, a salmonella outbreak from cantaloupes originating in Mexico killed two people and sickened 25.

Making Your Food Safe

A 2006 investigation by the Associated Press discovered that the FDA manually checked only a fraction (1.3 percent) of imports. But fortunately, there are steps you can take to help ensure that your food is as safe as you'd like it to be.

  • Wash. Make sure you clean your produce. By rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables with running water, you can remove any visible dirt. In addition, peel off the outermost layers of vegetables like cabbage and lettuce. Washing is equally important for your hands. Be sure to wash them thoroughly with soap and warm water before food preparation.
  • Separate. It's important not to contaminate your fresh food. It's best to use two cutting boards, one for meat products and one for your produce. If a utensil has been used with raw meat, do not use it with other food products.
  • Cook. Make sure you cook your meat, especially ground meat and poultry, thoroughly. Using a thermometer is a great way to determine if you've killed all the bacteria. Most meats should be cooked to temperatures of at least 140 to 165 degrees.
  • Buy local. Although it can be difficult to figure out what country your produce or meat originates from, supermarkets often have signs indicating whether the food was locally grown. Locally or domestically produced foods are less likely to be contaminated. A 2003 report by the FDA found that 6.1 percent of foods imported from abroad had pesticide violations, while only 2.4 percent of domestic products failed to meet requirements. Another report stated that almost 4 percent of imported produce tested positive for salmonella, compared with 1.1 percent for domestic fruits and vegetables.
  • Go organic. Buying organic produce can also help to ensure that no chemicals or pesticides have been used. Organic foods are supposed to be grown without the use of chemical pesticides and don't allow antibiotics and hormones to be used in raising livestock.
  • Get a butcher. The majority of beef, pork, and poultry consumed in the United States is also raised here. However, most of it goes through meat processing plants. If this troubles you, find a local butcher. Butchers usually prepare their meat that day, so chances are, the product will be fresher.

Common Foodborne Diseases

Although a variety of factors may play a role in food contamination, the CDC has compiled a list of the most common foodborne illnesses:

  • Campylobacter. This bacterial infection can lead to fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. In fact, the bacterium is responsible for the most diarrheal infections worldwide. Undercooked poultry or foods that have been contaminated with drippings from raw chicken are the predominant sources of campylobacter.
  • Salmonella. Another bacterium, salmonella is most commonly associated with undercooked chicken, although it can be found in the intestines of reptiles and mammals. Much like campylobacter, salmonella can result in diarrhea and abdominal cramps. However, for those in poor health, salmonella can invade the bloodstream and become life threatening.
  • E. coli. This bacterial pathogen is often found in cattle, as well as in food and water containing even small amounts of bovine feces. The illness can cause severe and painful stomach cramps and bloody stools. Long-term exposure to E. coli can result in kidney failure, bleeding, and in rare cases, even death.
  • Calicivirus, or Norwalk-like, virus. This illness is common in raw seafood-especially oysters. Calicivirus generally clears up in about a day or two, but the symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea.