Food Safety Update
April 30, 2007
FOOD SAFETY UPDATE
It's been a busy year for the FDA. E. coli0157, found in bagged spinach, infected
more than 170 people over 25 states. Salmonella Tennessee, found in peanut
butter, infected more than 400 people in 44 states.Salmonella contamination of
tomatoes, as well as E. coli contamination of bagged cut lettuce caused additional
outbreaks. And the list goes on.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 76 million Americans get sick
from food borne illnesses each year - a startling number. Mike Doyle, Director
of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says most can be
"There are a number of issues keeping these numbers high," he says, including a
decreasing number of FDA food safety inspections. According to a database analysis
of federal records by The Associated Press, inspections dropped 47 percent between
2003 and 2006, with 12 percent fewer FDA employees in field offices concentrating
on food issues. An increase in foreign food imports (Mexican green onions were
implicated in a Hepatitis A outbreak in 1998) and changes in dietary habits are
Perhaps most significant are these dietary changes, which include the consumption
of more fresh fruits and vegetables. Our produce intake has more than doubled in
the last two decades, and since produce is often served raw, there is a greater risk
of food borne illness associated with it than with more processed foods.
Also, the produce industry, within the last decade, transitioned a good portion of
its sales to pre-washed, bagged salads. These products undergo a so-called "triple
washing" in chlorinated water, but this process is not sufficient enough, says Doyle,
to eliminate contamination, as seen in the case of the recent bagged spinach
"Back in the good old days, we'd buy a head of lettuce, remove the outer leaves
and wash it at home. That was adequate for maintaining safety. Ready-to-eat
produce, on the other hand, is harvested, cut and cored in the field, which further
opens up the possibility of contamination," says Doyle. "The FDA is going to
have to take more stringent steps to make fresh-cut produce safer." Perhaps the
recommendation should be to wash bagged salad again despite a "pre-washed"
Dr. Catherine Donnelly, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of
Vermont and an expert on the bacterial pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, agrees,
especially considering the increased centralization of food production, which likely
contributed to the larger scale of the recent spinach outbreak. Another pressing risk
factor? Changes in the pathogens themselves.
"Bacteria that were innocuous years ago have acquired more aggressive, antibioticresistant genes, making them deadlier and more pervasive," she says.
Thankfully, enhanced surveillance methods, like the PulseNet system, are helping
identify foodborne illnesses faster so contaminated products can be more quickly
isolated and removed from commerce. PulseNet, initiated in 1996, identifies specific
strains of bacteria on a local level and fingerprints them, and then sends them to
the national database for comparison. When common microbial fingerprints appear
in several states, the CDC is alerted to the possibility of an outbreak.
Even with this system in place, however, problems persist. Eggs continue to have
trouble with Salmonella, and beef, with E. coli. Pasteurized eggs are now available
for baking and making ice cream, but vaccinations - in both chickens and cattle
- may be the next step. Studies using probiotics - the "good bacteria" fed to
livestock to improve digestion and health - are also promising. Since many of these
treatments are a ways off, Doyle recommends cooking foods thoroughly, always
washing your hands before eating and after handling uncooked meat, poultry and
produce, and avoiding recontamination.
"On a very basic level, sponges used to clean up juices from poultry, eggs and raw
meat often contains large amounts of bacteria that you can't wash out. Instead, use
paper towels to wipe up - and then throw them away."
Even though more than half of all outbreaks are associated with restaurants,
customers think about food safety slightly more at the store level than they do
while eating at a restaurant (reports a recent study from the Michigan State
University Food Safety Policy Center). That means customer loyalty could be at
risk. Doyle says retailers can go a long way toward quelling fears by effectively
communicating information about the safety of their products.
He adds, "Make customers aware of what is being recalled by the FDA, and
encourage them to follow the advisories."