The safety of the food we eat is essential to our health and ultimately, our existence. “Germs in food make 76 million Americans sick, send 323,000 to hospitals and kill 5,000 each year “, the CDC estimates. Americans are not the only ones at risk as foodborne diseases actually occur “daily in all countries, from the most to the least developed” (WHO). Therefore, it is no wonder why growing priority is being placed on food safety. In fact, “increasing concern about food safety has led to a boost in research into quicker and cheaper methods of detecting and killing pathogens” (ElAmin). Between scientific advancements in detection and treatment and public awareness of preventative measures, foodborne disease may soon become a problem of the past.
Two Most Common Pathogens
The two most common pathogens found in food are salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli). These pathogens are responsible for tens of thousands of illnesses and infections and hundreds of deaths every year in the United States.
Salmonella is a bacteria found in a number of places including water, soil and animal feces to the more common household items such as raw meat and eggs, and on kitchen surfaces. Each year, salmonella infections affect nearly 50,000 people in the United States. Symptoms of salmonella infection include “nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea (sometimes bloody), fever, and headaches” (Homeier).
Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a dangerous pathogen that is responsible for “73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths” in the United States each year. (CDC) Symptoms of an E. coli infection usually “start about 7 days after you are infected with the germ” (AAFP) and begin with severe abdominal cramps, then diarrhea and eventually bloody stools caused by sores the infection makes in the intestines. Other symptoms may include a mild fever and possible nausea or vomiting (AAFP).
Preventing Infections of Salmonella and E. coli.
Proper food preparation is the first key to understanding how to limit the spread of salmonella and E. coli. To prevent both diseases, it is recommended to cook meat thoroughly at a temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, avoid raw milk and eggs, including under cooked eggs (Outbreak, Inc.) Drink only “pasteurized milk, juices, or cider” or water that has been “treated with chlorine or other effective disinfectants” and thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables. (Outbreak, Inc.) Eric Schlosser reports that, “the most common cause of foodborne outbreaks has been the consumption of undercooked ground beef” and “contaminated bean sprouts, salad greens, cantaloupe” and salami.
Proper food storage is second vital issue in public awareness. Important rules to follow are to “wash and chill melons before slicing” and “separate raw meat, poultry and seafood” from other items in the refrigerator (BFHD). Also be sure to “keep hot food hot and cold food cold”, “keep food refrigerated or frozen” and to “refrigerate leftovers right away or throw them away” (AAFP).
Cleanliness is the third key factor the public should understand to help cease the spread of both salmonella and E. coli. It is recommended that after contact with any foods of animal origin, soap and water should be used to immediately wash any surfaces touched (hands, utensils and kitchen surfaces). The handling of pets such as “reptiles, amphibians or birds” or pet feces, the “changing of soiled diapers” or bowel movements all necessitate the thorough washing of hands with soap and water (Outbreak Inc.)
Avoid person-to-person transmission. Public settings or interactions offer a fourth level of complexity for the spread of both pathogens that the public would be of added benefit to understand. It is important to note that E. coli “outbreak can also be caused by person-to-person transmission of the bacteria in homes and in settings like daycare centers, hospitals, and nursing homes” (Outbreak Inc.) Prevention of E. coli is also aided by avoiding “swallowing lake or pool water while swimming”. While both diseases can spread from animal-to-human exposure, “petting zoos and other animal exhibits” are safest when avoided (Outbreak Inc.)
Treatment of food is the next vital step in the prevention of infection for both E. coli and salmonella infections. Irradiation, also known as Cold Pasteurization, is gaining ground as an essential method to eliminate the dangers created by pathogens in meat. According to Eric Schlosser, “Irradiation is a form of bacterial birth control” so that “when microorganisms are zapped with low levels of gamma rays or x-rays, they are not killed, but their DNA is disrupted and they cannot reproduce.” This technique is progressing, as “major meat and poultry suppliers are forming alliances with manufacturers of the food irradiation equipment. There are 21 companies currently supplying equipment that could be used”( I-AX). Although public fears regarding radiation and “reluctance among consumers to eat things that have been exposed to radiation” are still significantly high, “irradiated foods are safe to eat”, according to “The American Medical Association and the World Health Organization,” says Schlosser.
REVISS, explains the difference between items that are “irradiated” and those that are “contaminated” with radiation. “A contaminated item is one that has a measurable quantity of radioactive material deposited on it. It is in itself a source of radiation and must be contained appropriately. It should not be handled without protection, as it may contaminate anything that comes into contact with it. An item irradiated by cobalt-60 is one that has had gamma radiation 'shone' through it. The irradiated item does not pick up any radioactivity and never contains radioactivity, so it may be handled normally” (REVISS). Therefore, the process of irradiation leaves food free of dangerous pathogens and radiation resulting only in improved food safety.
The CDC explains that, ongoing studies in the safety of irradiation over the past four decades have proven that “like pasteurization and retort canning, irradiation is a safe and effective food processing step. Treated food does not become radioactive, and, in general, shelf life is prolonged because organisms that cause spoilage are reduced along with pathogens. Irradiation has been used effectively in meats, poultry, grains, and produce” (CDC). The FDA concurs, “Irradiation of food does not lead to changes in the composition of the food that, from a toxicological point of view, would have an adverse effect on human health” (Morehouse). It is also important to note that an additional benefit of food irradiation is the control of “insect pests – thus reducing the need for environmentally harmful fumigants” (Robertson).
The safety of irradiation therefore holds great promise in the improvement of public health via reduction and eventually eradication of foodborne infections. The CDC estimates “The potential benefit of irradiating meat and poultry alone is substantial; it could prevent hundreds of thousands of foodborne illnesses, thousands of hospitalizations, and hundreds of deaths each year” (Tauxe). Education of the public as to the true facts of irradiation will be important in obtaining a broadened acceptance of irradiation and in turn, access to all the benefits that irradiation has to offer.
Foodborne illnesses can become a problem of the past with the help of science and public awareness. Thorough testing for early detection of pathogens, public awareness of preventative measures and the elimination of pathogens through irradiation will all be essential components in the plan to eradicate the contamination of pathogens that lead to foodborne infections.
American Academy of Family Physicians. “E. Coli infection”. Familydoctor.org.
Associated Press. “Despite E. coli outbreak, food safer than ever.” Msnbc.com
Benton-Franklin Health District. “Salmonella food safety series”
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ElAmin, Ahmed. “Salmonella test approved for poultry plants”. FoodProductionDaily-USA.com.
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Homeier, Barbara P., “Salmonella Infections”. KidsHealth June 2005.
I-AX Technologies. “Cold Pasteurization (a.k.a. Food Irradiation)”. Iaxtech.com.
Igen.com “First Rapid Commercial Salmonella Test Gets US Seal of Approval”. Content-wire.com.
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Outbreak, Inc. “E. coli O157:H7 – a foodborne pathogen” About-ecoli.com.
REVISS. “A Guide to the Terminology of Radioactivity, Radiation Sources and their Distribution.” Reviss.com.
Robertson, Robert E. and Hoy, Jerilynn “Food Irradiation, Available Research Indicates That Benefits Outweigh Risks.” United States General Accounting Office. August 2000.
Schlosser, Eric. “Fast Food Nation”. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Tauxe, Robert V. “Food Safety and Irradiation: Protecting the Public from Foodborne Infections”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
World Health Organization. “General information related to foodborne disease”. Who.int.
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