Jane Hoback

February 28, 2009

5 Min Read
Knowledge fights foodborne disease

The late chef extraordinaire Julia Child was famously quoted as having said, “It's so beautifully arranged on the plate—you know someone's fingers have been all over it.”

That's likely even more true today, and the consequences of all those fingers handling food can result in a variety of foodborne illnesses.

Hardly a week goes by without a report of another outbreak. Many are nationwide. The exotic-sounding names are becoming all too familiar: E. coli in spinach. Salmonella in peanut butter. Campylobacter in chicken. And the illnesses they cause can range from an upset stomach to kidney failure. Though rare, the result can even be death.

Yet food-safety experts say awareness and proper handling practices can, if not eliminate, at least help reduce the outbreaks.

“We fundamentally have a safe food system,” says Shelley Feist, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Food Safety Education.

Even so, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control estimates that 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the U.S. each year. The CDC says more than 250 foodborne diseases have been described. Most are infections caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites.

A CDC report of 2007 data issued last April concluded that little headway has been made in containing illnesses from food. The report was based on findings in 10 states gathered by the CDC's Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, or FoodNet, which compared the data to the previous three years, from 2004 to 2006.

The results: There were 17,883 confirmed cases of foodborne infections in 2007 in the 10 states. Campylobacter, listeria, salmonella, shigella, E.coli O157, vibrio and yersinia showed no significant declines, and Cryptosporidium actually increased compared with the 2004 to 2006 data, according to the CDC.

A couple notable findings from the report:

  • “Transmission of salmonella to humans can occur by many routes, including consumption of food animal products or raw produce contaminated with animal waste, contact with animals … and contaminated water. Outbreaks caused by contaminated peanut butter, frozen pot pies and a puffed vegetable snack in 2007 underscore the need to prevent contamination of commercially produced products.

  • “Although the [U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service] and the beef processing industry have implemented interventions to reduce ground-beef contamination, 21 beef-product recalls for possible contamination with [shiga-toxin-producing E. coli] O157 were issued.”

    “More needs to be done to make our food safer,” Robert Tauxe, Ph.D, deputy director of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, says in a statement about the report. “We are constantly working to help our public health system better detect, investigate and control outbreaks and to understand how to prevent foodborne illnesses from happening in the first place.”

    But if you think you can prevent getting sick by avoiding spinach or eschewing oysters or only eating organic or local, think again. Produce growing in fields is always going to be vulnerable to bird droppings and feces of animals of one kind or another romping through the crops. If you don't wash your hands, if you don't roast the chicken until it's thoroughly cooked and wipe off the counter after you've fixed lunch, you're just setting yourself up for sickness. Food-safety experts aren't being paranoid when they say foodborne illnesses can lurk in everything.

    “All foods can be a concern,” says Catherine Strohbehn, Ph.D., Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management Extension specialist at Iowa State University in Ames. “Historically, the attention has been placed on potentially hazardous foods, those with high nutrient levels and moisture which will allow for bacterial growth such as poultry. However, there have been widespread outbreaks from viral and bacterial sources on foods we traditionally have not been concerned with, such as fresh produce.”

    Good agricultural practices as well as caution in food selection, storage, handling and preparation are key in every case.

    Proper handwashing, for example, is the best way to help prevent norovirus, another common foodborne illness. E. coli is what Strohbehn calls a “horrific illness. But research has pretty well shown that cooking is a good control mechanism.”

    Feist's Partnership for Food Safety Education puts it simply: Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.

    “Some of these pathogens are naturally occurring. They're going to be in food,” Feist says. “So they have to be cooked properly, chilled properly.”

    An alphabet of government agencies—USDA, FDA, CDC—have stringent rules and regulations to try to keep food safe and to hunt down illnesses.

    And while awareness and safety from farm to table are critical, the middlemen—retailers—play an important role.

    “Consumers really appreciate it when retailers provide information and help,” says Feist, whose organization recently formed an offshoot—befoodsafe.org—that provides resources for grocery stores to use to help their customers. Signage and informational printed material are some of the tools available. So far, more than 50 retailers—from the giant grocery chains to small independents—are members. Feist says the next push is to sign up suppliers.

    Experts say that as awareness and publicity increase, reports of foodborne illnesses are likely to rise. When in the past you might have just suffered through a bout of stomach cramps and diarrhea, now you could be more apt to go to the doctor and try to figure out what made you sick.

    The government has rigorous systems in place to identify and track illnesses. Awareness is also going to help food handlers—be they farmers, food processors or grocery-store workers—stay vigilant as well.

    “Farmers are food handlers, too,” Strohbehn says. They have to know food-safety practices, too. Don't use the same gloves to plant the crops as you do to harvest them. Test the water. Train your farm workers, and provide toilets and hand-washing facilities.” Grocery stores must provide proper training and education for employees in food handling. The stores themselves must stay current on “use by” and “sell by” dates, and in temperature control of different foods.

    “All these things improve quality as well as safety,” Strohbehn says.

    Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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