You’ve got to eat and at some point, you’re going to get sick.
It’s in the numbers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans will come down with a food-borne illness in a given year. Three thousand will die.
Too often, illness results from mistakes in careless handling or improper preparation of food.
For example, General Mills has a recall underway on various packages of flour and related products because of possible contamination from E. coli bacteria. Fully cooked and properly handled, you likely would not be made sick from eating something baked from this product, but 46 of people across the nation, including two in Virginia, have been infected, according to the CDC. The illnesses occurred after folks ate raw cookie dough made with the flour, or through improper handwashing and hygiene after working the flour.
You rarely see it, but on any given day, there are numerous active alerts and recalls of food products across this nation. A quick look at the list at foodsafety.gov shows as array of recalls and alerts issued since the first of July. The products are as varied as the foods we eat, though most are for meat products both raw and processed. Most are related to possible bacterial contamination, though some are for allergy alerts or other reasons.
You can learn a lot about food safety, and report any illness you suspect may have stemmed from exposure to contaminated food online through the Virginia Department of Health's Meal Detective. The program also offers some informative and entertaining videos on food safety, as above.
How safe is our food? How well is the system working that gets our food from farm to table? We asked two experts for their assessment. Chyer Kim is an assistant professor at the Agricultural Research Station at Virginia State University. Renee Boyer is an associate professor and extension specialist in food microbiology and consumer food safety at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Blacksburg. Here are their assessments of food safety and some tips on what you can do to mitigate your risks. Responses have been edited for brevity and style.
Q: There’s an ongoing recall that was expanded on Monday related to an E coli outbreak through flour from General Mills. In each case, illness has resulted from eating uncooked dough or exposure to uncooked dough and not washing up, not through exposure to raw flour. How common is this, and how are consumers usually exposed to E. coli? How dangerous is this bacteria, and what can you do to mitigate the danger?
Dr. Kim: E. coli are found everywhere in the environment, in foods, and in the intestines of people and animals. Consumers are usually exposed to E. coli through
hygienic malpractices such as improper cleaning of foods or not washing hands before food consumption.
There are many different types of E. coli. While most are harmless and some are even beneficial to humans, a few types of can cause people to become sick or even kill. Symptoms may include diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness or pneumonia.
Some consumer practices aimed at mitigating the risk of infection include thorough washing of hands and foods before food consumption, washing hands after contact with animals and their environments, avoiding raw milk, and thorough cooking of foods following safe food handling guidelines recommended by the U.S. FDA.
We conducted a similar study on the growth of food borne pathogens in no-knead bread dough during storage. Findings in the study revealed that storage at room temperature permits substantial growth of infectious and/or toxin-producing foodborne pathogens, implying that the making of slow-rise and no-knead bread may compromise consumer kitchen sanitation and food safety.
Dr. Boyer: I wouldn't say that this is common at all, especially from a dehydrated product like flour, which is not really considered a very risky product. Foods that can be contaminated with pathogenic E. coli tend to be foods that have a higher chance with coming into contact with fecal contamination. Traditionally we have thought about undercooked meats, which can become contaminated during the slaughter and processing. Undercooked meats are probably the most likely to lead to exposure and this is why it is so important for consumers to cook meats to the recommended temperature
and to verify that they have done so with a thermometer. Ground meat (hamburgers) for example, should be cooked to 160 degrees as measured with a meat thermometer. Pathogenic E. coli can be very dangerous, especially to children and immunocompromised individuals. With children, some E. coli produces a toxin called a shiga toxin, which specifically attacks the kidneys and can be fatal.
Q: It looks like one in six people are sickened each year through contaminated food. Where is a consumer most likely to consume contaminated food? Why?
D. Boyer: There is no one location that a consumer is more or less likely to consume a contaminated food. It is really important to make good choices in order to reduce the risk of being exposed. One of the best ways that I have already mentioned is through cooking meats to the recommended temperature. But also practicing good safe food handling practices like keeping foods that should be kept cold, cold and foods that should be kept hot, hot. When foods fall within the temperature danger zone (40-140 degrees), bacteria can multiply. Additionally, practicing good sanitation through hand washing and preventing cross contamination are key ways to prevent exposure. Certainly, consumers can control these practices best when they are in their home. Practicing good sanitation and preventing cross contamination are practices that could have been key for preventing the current illnesses linked to flour.
Dr. Kim: Since there are many possible sources that may contribute to the contamination of food, it is difficult to determine where a consumer will most likely consume contaminated food. A recent FDA report indicated that the majority of food poisonings are caused by beef, vegetables, and dairy products. Therefore, careful handling and processing of all agricultural commodities, from farm to table, are recommended to prevent foodborne illness, regardless of where those products are acquired.
Q: When you’re chasing down an illness, it’s a bit late in the process. Is there any particular weak link in the food production process where contamination occurs or where monitoring may need to be increased?
Dr. Kim: As food contamination can occur at any point along the chain from production, processing, and distribution to preparation, it is difficult to single out any particular step or point in the food production process as a weak link for food contamination. It is also important to understand that humans are the number one culprit for food contamination, and therefore stringent efforts are needed to implement good agricultural/manufacturing/handling practices for processors and consumers alike.
Dr. Boyer: I don't think that there is a weak link in the production process specifically. Food companies generally put food safety programs in place to prevent contamination from occurring at all. Therefore it is a preventative approach versus a reactive approach.
Q: According to the CDC, cases of E. coli have been about halved since the mid-1990s, while salmonella cases have not declined in 15 years. What would account for the difference? How are consumers most likely to be sickened by salmonella, and what can be done to mitigate the risk?
Dr. Boyer: Most of the decrease in the number of cases of E. coli has to do with changes that have been made in the meat industry. Practices and monitoring have been put in place to decrease or prevent contamination from occurring during the slaughter and processing environments.
Dr. Kim: Patricia Griffin, Chief of the Enteric Disease Epidemiology Branch at the CDC Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, in a recent interview stated that rates of some infections have declined, others have increased, and most have stayed the same, but the agency is not clear about the reasons for these changes. Because there are so many variables potentially influencing outbreak cases, it is difficult to determine if there are just a few factors responsible for contributing to the difference in the rates between Salmonella and E. coli. However, a recent presentation by L. Hannah Gould, leader of the National Outbreak Reporting System Team at the CD, made at the Beef Safety Conference indicated that, among 75 outbreaks associated with beef over the five-year period between 2009 and 2013, 35 percent were caused by E. coli and 23 percent by Salmonella. These reports can be confusing. To my understanding, a robust risk assessment effort is in progress at the level of stakeholders (including academia, government, and industry) to determine the rate at which each of these bacteria causes human illness. I wouldn’t be too positive about the decline of E. coli cases given that this pathogen is opportunistic and is still present in/on food products, waiting for any malpractice by processors/handlers. The rise again of E. coli cases is just a matter of time, and all it takes is just one episode of malpractice. Therefore, continuous and laborious collaborative effort is needed to keep the numbers down.
Salmonella are also found everywhere in the environment and their cases were mostly associated with raw or undercooked poultry products, milk, and produce. Consumers can be infected with Salmonella by consuming improperly cleaned and processed foods contaminated with animal feces.
In order for consumers to mitigate the risks, I reiterate that they should follow safe food handling guidelines as addressed above with good hygienic practices and using common sense.
Q: What’s your assessment of the state of food safety in this nation? What has been done, and what should be done regarding food safety practices and policies?
Dr. Kim: The state of food safety in the US is in a relatively good position.
I am particularly excited about the recent mandate of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which attempts to shift the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it by requiring comprehensive, science-based preventive controls across the food supply chain to prevent contamination.
Although a verification program for foreign suppliers is included in the FSMA to ensure that importers are responsible for the safety of food supplied to the US, due to the limited control or inspection of food products or ingredients processed abroad, more practical food safety practices and policies may need to be put in place.
In addition, the sale of food products via the Internet and at local famers’ markets is increasing. Products processed by producers on a relatively small scale may be different from those produced by their large-scale counterparts in that they are generally unregulated and may come with their own sets of agricultural practices and sanitation operating procedures. For the most part, the food safety risks associated with products purchased via the Internet and at farmers’ markets have not been adequately addressed, and there is a need for research in this area, especially as the Internet and farmers’ markets become more of a staple in the lives of so many American consumers. It is also noteworthy that most products sold at farmers’ markets have received either minimal or no treatment, thus increasing the potential microbial risks. These practices could increase the risk of product contamination due to the conditions during on-farm handling, transportation, and/or display at the market itself. Our recent study on “Survey review of microbial quality on food products acquired from Internet and local retail markets in Virginia” revealed not much difference in microbial quality due to market source.
More systematic and robust food safety training and education are desirable for stakeholders involved in all points of the farm-to-table process to help reduce the future manifestation of foodborne illnesses.
Dr. Boyer: Although I think that the food supply in the U.S. was safe before, great strides have been made in the safety of the food supply with the recent passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Q: How concerned should consumers be regarding the safety of their food? What should consumers do to mitigate any food contamination risks when they are eating out, or at home?
Dr. Kim: To mitigate any contamination risks when they are eating out, I suggest consumers utilize online consumer food safety reviews of restaurants and foodservice establishments. Consumers should also exercise common sense in ensuring that the food service establishments they choose are following safe food handling procedures, such as looking into the inspection records conducted by local public health departments and noting the number of consumers in the establishments and cleanliness of restrooms. Keep in mind that whether an establishment’s restroom is neat or sloppy can be an indication of the state of its kitchen and may reflect the hygienic status of the food that you consume. I can’t emphasize enough that food handlers at food establishments and consumers at home should follow safe food handling guidelines, which are available as noted.
Dr. Boyer: Generally I don't think that consumers should be terribly concerned. My best recommendations are to understand that foods inherently contain risks, and to take steps to try and mitigate the risks, like cooking foods to the recommended temperatures, use good temperature control for foods that require it, and practice good handwashing and sanitation to prevent cross contamination. In regards to eating out, request that your foods are cooked to recommended temperatures and understand that some foods carry more risk associated with consuming them, such as raw oysters.