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Food Safety and Foodborne Illnesses

At the time of this writing, an investigation by the federal Food and Drug Administration is trying to get to the source of an outbreak of E. coli infection in packaged spinach that has resulted in several deaths and sicknesses all over the United States. Meat producers in Iowa have recalled a large quantity of ground beef that has tested positive for E. coli; the bacteria has also been discovered in the water used to irrigate some batches of California lettuce. As if nothing were sacred, several cases of potentially deadly botulism have been linked to contaminated carrot juice. “Mad cow” disease issues arise periodically, as do “food poisoning” issues in restaurants and institutions. The spinach incident marked the 20th time since 1995 that spinach or lettuce had been linked to the outbreak of disease. The beef incident brings back painful memories of 1993 when an outbreak of E. coli tied to the Jack in the Box restaurant chain caused the deaths of four children and the sickening of hundreds of people.

The fact that food-borne illness makes such headlines, however, underscores the fact that such problems are relatively rare in the United States. The ground beef and lettuce incidents did not result in any illness among American consumers. The American packaged food industry, which is largely and scientifically run by immense corporations, rarely sees a recall. The September 2006 spinach scare resulted in a quick removal of spinach from markets and homes across the nation; it devastated the industry, but the public health threat was speedily controlled.

A country the size of the United States, with its massive needs, relies more and more on industrial agriculture. Although the United States has many agricultural regions, the massive valleys of central California on the continent’s west coast grow and process a substantial portion of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

Food safety problems that arise in California and other food focal points can be quickly spread by truck and train throughout the nation. The sheer size of the country and scale of its food production facilities makes it potentially vulnerable to the spread of food pathogens.

Control over health issues regarding food production and distribution is exercised at federal, state and local levels, as well as by the food industry itself.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the two main federal agencies that deal with food safety issues. The USDA, through its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspects and grades meat and poultry, dairy products, fruits and vegetables.

The FDA writes the Food Code, a series of standards designed to guide state food agencies and the industry in general. The Food Code covers food handling and preparation, food personnel issues, equipment and utensils, sanitation, food facility inspection, compliance and enforcement procedures. Both federal agencies work together to inspect food-processing plants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia (a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) also investigates outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and keeps statistics as to its prevalence. The CDC estimates that unsafe food causes 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

The agencies, their state counterparts, and many local jurisdictions promote the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) system, which is widely used in the restaurant and hospitality industry to identify areas where health problems may arise in food handling. Ultimately, however, the point at which the consumer and the food chain meet—in restaurants and food stores—is policed by state and local administrators, leading to haphazard results and a lack of uniformity of standards. In one state, for example, inspectors may visit a restaurant every six months, in another, every two years. Some states fail to inspect convenience stores altogether, despite the fact that a growing number of these stores are providing consumers with quick prepared packaged meals.

A salmonella outbreak at one of these stores will bring down heavy governmental reaction to be sure, but it may well come too late for someone who has been sickened by the food. One local restaurant inspector may concentrate on work-surface cleanliness, another on refrigerator temperature. Even the standards for refrigeration temperatures are rarely uniform between jurisdictions, despite FDA and USDA guidelines. As to retail food, a product sold in a bakery may be regulated by a totally different agency than the same product sold in a supermarket, specialty gourmet shop, gasoline station, gift shop, or large warehouse store.

No one in the United States is completely immune from food illness issues, but educated consumers have an advantage. Paying attention to the news and the issues helps, as do simple precautions: if a grocery or restaurant looks dirty and unkempt on the outside, it’s generally safe to assume it’s in even worse condition in the areas you cannot see. Since more and more food pathogens are being associated with fresh produce, it pays to know where your produce comes from. The smart consumer will try to buy items that are locally grown that are also in season.