Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology

, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp 95-141

First online:

Food Safety

  • Andrea BorchersAffiliated withDivision of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Clinical Immunology, University of California at Davis School of Medicine
  • , Suzanne S. TeuberAffiliated withDivision of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Clinical Immunology, University of California at Davis School of Medicine
  • , Carl L. KeenAffiliated withDepartment of Nutrition, University of California at Davis
  • , M. Eric GershwinAffiliated withDivision of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Clinical Immunology, University of California at Davis School of Medicine Email author 

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Food can never be entirely safe. Food safety is threatened by numerous pathogens that cause a variety of foodborne diseases, algal toxins that cause mostly acute disease, and fungal toxins that may be acutely toxic but may also have chronic sequelae, such as teratogenic, immunotoxic, nephrotoxic, and estrogenic effects. Perhaps more worrisome, the industrial activities of the last century and more have resulted in massive increases in our exposure to toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic, which now are present in the entire food chain and exhibit various toxicities. Industrial processes also released chemicals that, although banned a long time ago, persist in the environment and contaminate our food. These include organochlorine compounds, such as 1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-bis(p-chlorophenyl)ethane (dichlorodiphenyl dichloroethene) (DDT), other pesticides, dioxins, and dioxin-like compounds. DDT and its breakdown product dichlorophenyl dichloroethylene affect the developing male and female reproductive organs. In addition, there is increasing evidence that they exhibit neurodevelopmental toxicities in human infants and children. They share this characteristic with the dioxins and dioxin-like compounds. Other food contaminants can arise from the treatment of animals with veterinary drugs or the spraying of food crops, which may leave residues. Among the pesticides applied to food crops, the organophosphates have been the focus of much regulatory attention because there is growing evidence that they, too, affect the developing brain. Numerous chemical contaminants are formed during the processing and cooking of foods. Many of them are known or suspected carcinogens. Other food contaminants leach from the packaging or storage containers. Examples that have garnered increasing attention in recent years are phthalates, which have been shown to induce malformations in the male reproductive system in laboratory animals, and bisphenol A, which negatively affects the development of the central nervous system and the male reproductive organs. Genetically modified foods present new challenges to regulatory agencies around the world because consumer fears that the possible health risks of these foods have not been allayed. An emerging threat to food safety possibly comes from the increasing use of nanomaterials, which are already used in packaging materials, even though their toxicity remains largely unexplored. Numerous scientific groups have underscored the importance of addressing this issue and developing the necessary tools for doing so. Governmental agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration and other agencies in the USA and their counterparts in other nations have the increasingly difficult task of monitoring the food supply for these chemicals and determining the human health risks associated with exposure to these substances. The approach taken until recently focused on one chemical at a time and one exposure route (oral, inhalational, dermal) at a time. It is increasingly recognized, however, that many of the numerous chemicals we are exposed to everyday are ubiquitous, resulting in exposure from food, water, air, dust, and soil. In addition, many of these chemicals act on the same target tissue by similar mechanisms. “Mixture toxicology” is a rapidly growing science that addresses the complex interactions between chemicals and investigates the effects of cumulative exposure to such “common mechanism groups” of chemicals. It is to be hoped that this results in a deeper understanding of the risks we face from multiple concurrent exposures and makes our food supply safer.


Infection Food allergies Food additives Toxicology Diarrhea Food safety