Bacteria live among us by the trillions, with total numbers on earth estimated at five million trillion trillion — that’s a five with 30 zeroes after it. On a day-day basis, around 100 trillion bacteria live in and on our bodies, doing us lots of good. Not only do we live in harmony with these beneficial bacteria, but they are essential to our survival.
In such a diverse microbial world, we are also exposed to bad bacteria, which can make our life uncomfortable, or even dangerous. These antagonistic pathogens love an unhygienic environment and take any chance to proliferate. If they get into our food, it can become contaminated, affecting our health in a powerful way. If you’ve ever contracted food poisoning, you know that there are few things in life less fun. It’s also shocking, because when we buy our groceries or eat out at a restaurant, we don’t expect to become sick.
Still, each year in the United States, microbial pathogens cause between 40-80 million cases of food poisoning annually, resulting in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 9,000 deaths, according to the FDA.
The numbers are shocking and many wonder if their government is doing enough to protect them from these pernicious outbreaks? This article details the results and shows you how to avoid becoming sick.
Defining Food Poisoning
The Mayo Clinic says food poisoning (also called foodborne illness) is caused by foods contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites, or food preparation. In fact, everything we do with food is an attempt to keep from being harmed by microbes.
Food poisoning may cause severe gut disturbances, nausea and stomach cramps among other symptoms. Most cases are nasty to suffer through, but they don’t require immediate medical intervention. However, that doesn’t mean you’ve side stepped long-term consequences. A 2012 issue of Scientific American stated that E coli has been linked to kidney failure and diabetes; listeria to miscarriages and hepatitis A and Salmonella to a form of arthritis. Another, campylobacter, is tied to bowel problems and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
A big part of the problem is our heavy reliance on food imports, coupled with increasing globalization of food production and trade, making food safety more complex. The good news is that the CDC shows a 25 percent decline in outbreaks with the six most common foodborne illnesses over the last 20 years. The bad news is that the severity seems to be increasing.
“Between 2009 and 2014, there was a definite upward trend in outbreaks nationwide. And these numbers only reference reported cases. The CDC estimates that for every case identified, there are more than 20 that go by undiagnosed. (eater.com)
Unfortunately, food can become contaminated at any point during production and preparation. Chicken, turkey and beef slaughterhouses are notorious for E. coli contamination. But your local restaurant is even more likely to have meat spoil in the cooler. And that salad you’ve ordered? It can carry disease all the way from farm to table. Even an inattentive cook might use the same knife he used to de-bone a chicken on your lettuce.
What Has Been Done?
To help address the public challenge of food safety, in 2010 Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which took effect in 2011. Its passage marked the first major overhaul of federal food safety in 70 years, putting emphasis on prevention of food-borne illness, rather than reaction to outbreaks.
“This followed one of the deadliest outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in U.S. history, in a case profiled in an episode of CNBC’s “American Greed.” Peanut Corporation of America President Stewart Parnell became the first food company CEO in U.S. history sent to prison because he knowingly ordered workers to ship contaminated peanut products to customers nationwide. As many as 20,000 people were sickened; nine died.”
FSMA law took about six years to roll out, with 2017 seeing full implementation of rule compliance. It also marked the beginning of the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP), forcing importers to demonstrate supplier food safety. This was a critical addition, as a staggering 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 50 percent of fresh fruits, 20 percent of vegetables and 80 percent of seafood from 200 countries. (Sustainableagriculture.net)
But even with full FSMA implementation, the FDA faces a daunting task in verifying importer compliance, causing struggles with even the biggest companies. Take Kraft Heinz for example. With thousands of suppliers, turning up the heat on them to disclose protocols and procedures will be difficult; management of that information will be almost impossible.
Will FSMA Work In The Long Run?
Few would argue the overhaul of an antiquated food safety system, making food safer from production and transport to preparation and consumption. This law is expected to prevent 330,000 food-borne illnesses and save the United States $925 million each year.(National Institutes of Health)
Still, some criticize the system as a case of over-stretching and over-regulating an already unmanageable situation. FoodSafetyNews says “FSMA is still based on an out-dated command-and-control system, adding, “The FDA does not have the knowledge to tell every type of domestic and foreign producer, warehouse, transporter and retailer the best way to keep their products safe.”
And will we see more incidents like late last year, with a woefully slow response by the CDC to a deadly E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce. First revealed by Canadian officials on Dec. 11, a total of 58 people in Canada and the U.S. were confirmed with E. coli infections, and two died. In the United States, the CDC waited until Dec. 28 to go public about the outbreak, with the FDA similarly mum. It was a stunning lack of warnings or updated information to consumers. Just as concerning, the investigation appears to have gone ‘cold,’ with the agency’s own staff seemingly content to wind it down without finding the cause and source.” (FoodSafetyNews).
Looking at national food safety, there are two basic questions to examine. (1) Can a behemoth government agency, struggling with a massive mandate of regulatory and enforcement activities effectively be responsible for regulating 80 percent of America’s food supply? (2) Can individual risk be minimized with direct farm-to-consumer transaction, building a healthy and wholesome food system?
How to Protect Yourself
Since it’s not likely the government will choose the latter option, consumers must make healthy choices. The majority of food poisoning arises in restaurants and commercial food businesses, and the bulk of that from sick employees. Your best recourse is not to eat out too often. If you do get sick, crowdsourcing websites like iwaspoisoned.com can help. They allow reporting of incidents, restaurant name, location, food eaten and symptoms. Even local health inspectors marvel at outbreak reporting speeds of 1-2 days, where government channels can take days or weeks. This has the potential to stop an outbreak before it has a chance to spread and allows customers to understand where problematic facilities exist. (npr.org)
At home, your best practice is to buy fresh, local and good quality foods from trusted sources. If unable to do this, use common sense says the CDC: cleanliness, proper refrigeration, cooking food thoroughly, keeping raw foods and utensils that touch them separate from cooked foods and hot foods separated from cold foods.