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article imageFoodborne illness — How does food become contaminated? Part one

By Karen Graham     Sep 1, 2016 in Food
September is National Food Safety Education Month and this is the perfect time to focus on a number of issues related to food safety and foodborne illness. Today, we will look at where a contaminant enters the food production chain.
The Internet is filled with web pages offering ways to prevent foodborne illnesses, and most often, they focus on how to safely prepare and cook and serve the food products. Those instructions are important in keeping foodborne illnesses in check.
Here at Digital Journal, we have always stressed the importance of utensil and hand-washing as part of the protocols to follow when handling raw meats and vegetables, as well as safe ways to handle and serve foods.
But you may be surprised to learn that if you think the kitchen is where foodborne illness starts, you are missing the bigger picture. Yes, state and federal health officials do look at what was consumed in the home or at a restaurant in tracking down a foodborne illness, but the big question they need to answer is, "Where did the contaminant enter the food production chain?"
Food Safety
Contaminants and pathogens
We will use the word "contaminants" because there are a number of things besides bacteria that can make us sick. Foodborne illnesses can also be caused by viruses, parasites, pesticides, medications and even naturally occurring toxins, such as Amanita mushrooms or toxic algae.
Then, we can add allergens, a very important issue with people who have allergies. There are often many recalls due to these substances inadvertently being mixed in with a food product. The one other contaminant we need to mention is foreign materials. But today we will talk about pathogens and parasites.
Fertlizing Corn
A farmer applying fertilizer to his corn crop
Lynn Betts
Where do contaminants enter the food production chain?
As we said, look beyond your kitchen for where contaminants enter the food chain. Food contamination can occur at any point along the food production chain, starting at the farm, in food processing facilities, during transportation and storage or at grocery stores and restaurants.
And as we mentioned before, safe handling of food in the kitchen is important, but when looking at the foodborne illness outbreaks we have seen in the United States over the past year, most of them started with a contaminated product well before it entered your kitchen. Let's look at some of the biggest culprits.
Frozen Vegetables: The bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes, was behind a massive recall of frozen vegetables produced at a Washington state facility. Over 400 products, sold under many different brand names were recalled, but not before nine people were sickened by Listeriosis. All the victims required hospitalization and yet, there were still three deaths.
Flour: Remember the General Mills flour recall? That recall was massive and actually ended up becoming an international recall. A total of 46 infections with the bacteria, Escherichia coli (E. coli) were linked to the contaminated flour, with 13 people requiring hospitalization. A total of eight brands containing the flour were recalled.
Packaged Salads: The Dole packaged salad recall ended up affecting 23 states and three Canadian provinces. Again, Listeria monocytogenes was the culprit responsible for 19 illnesses and one death. Dole's Springfield, Ohio production facility was temporarily closed and all Dole Brand and private label salads were recalled.
All the above-mentioned recalls were for bacterial contamination that entered the food production chain before the products ever got to the retail level. These particular recalls were caused by production facilities that were contaminated. Sometimes, contamination starts at the farm level, such as the Cyclospora parasitic infections caused by fresh produce that hit Texas this year.
It is always worthwhile to point out that in the U.S., the CDC estimates that about one in six, or about 48 million Americans will get sick every year with a foodborne illness. Of that number, 128,000 will be hospitalized, and 3,000 will die from foodborne diseases. We are talking about all foodborne illnesses, regardless of what caused them.
In part two, we will look at how the FDA's new rules will help to curb foodborne illnesses before the products reach you, the consumer.
More about foodborne illness, Fda, Natl food safety education month, Food chain, crosscontamination
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