Fifty Million a Year Become Ill from Eating

The University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI) has named the foods commonly responsible for food-related illness.

Contrary to what most people think, those huge outbreaks of contaminated spinach or tomatoes aren't the main problem. "Outbreaks are of course a concern, but most food-borne illnesses that occur are not associated with outbreaks. CDC estimates almost 50 million cases a year, and 3,000 deaths," says Michael Batz, who is in charge of EPI's food safety programs and also lead author of the report, which was reported in Bloomberg


He took the time to chat with Short Order and explain which foods present the biggest dangers, the factors which result in contaminated food supplies, and what consumers can do to prevent contracting a food-related illness.

Food illness is serious business.
"When most people think of food-borne illness, they think of a few days of feeling sick, but sometimes the consequences are far worse," says Batz. "These costs include medical costs from hospitalizations and doctor visits, costs of lost days of work, and the cost to society of deaths due to food-borne illnesses. They also include long-term complications that can result from infection, such as kidney failure or paralysis. Also, when pregnant women are infected with certain pathogens, this can result in stillbirth or a baby born with permanent mental or physical disabilities."

Is our government doing enough?
"This problem persists in part because we have a trillion dollar, global food supply that involves hundreds of thousands of companies, and food can become contaminated with harmful microbes anywhere from a farm halfway around the world to the kitchen of a neighborhood restaurant. This complex system is overseen by a patchwork of federal, state, and local government agencies, each with their own responsibilities and with too little coordination among them. We need a more strategic approach to food safety that targets our efforts towards the greatest problems, and our analysis supports just such an effort."

Why do you think that poultry and eggs seem to be the most vulnerable?
"In part, it's because we eat an awful lot of chicken and eggs, more than beef or pork, for example. Our analysis suggests that poultry is the food that causes the greatest public health burden, but that doesn't mean that any individual serving is risky. We know chicken and eggs can harbor bacteria, particularly Salmonella and Campylobacter, which is why there are guidelines for handling and cooking them properly. But these practices aren't always followed, either in restaurants or in homes, and as a result a great number of people get sick every year."

Should we blame the food producers or the government?
"Ultimately, the responsibility for safe food lies with those producing it. The government can't be expected to look over the shoulder of every employee in every food business, but is there to provide guidelines for proper behavior and to enforce these guidelines the best it can. In some outbreaks, we've learned after the fact that the government knew about a problem but did nothing about it or failed in some other way to protect the public, and in those cases, I think it's absolutely fair to hold government responsible."

In which foods are the top five illness-causing pathogens -- Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma gondii and norovirus -- found?
"Campylobacter is most associated with poultry and unpasteurized milk. Salmonella is most often found in poultry, eggs, and produce such as tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupe, and sprouts. Listeria is associated with deli-meats, particularly those from deli counters, as well as soft cheeses. Toxoplasma is a parasite in beef, lamb, pork, and game meats, though we don't have a good handle on these risks. Norovirus -- often known as the "cruise ship" bug -- is often associated with food workers who contaminate prepared foods in restaurants, cafeterias, or other food establishments."

What does the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute do?
"The EPI was created in 2006 to serve as a hub for interdisciplinary research on disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microorganisms. Florida's wide array of temperate ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to new pathogens that could devastate the state's tourism, health, and agricultural economy. Thus, EPI researchers work on mosquito-borne pathogens like malaria and West-Nile virus, drug-resistant diseases such as tuberculosis and MRSA (Methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus), plant diseases such as citrus greening, and foodborne pathogens such as Vibrio vulnificus in shellfish. EPI faculty have recently traveled to Haiti in response to the cholera outbreak that followed last year's massive earthquake."

What advice do you have for consumers?
While many food safety risks are outside of their control, consumers can look up restaurant inspection scores online and follow good food safety practices in their own homes. They should wash their hands with soap before and after handling food, use separate boards and knives for meat and vegetables, and invest in and actually use -- that's the tricky part -- a good instant-read digital thermometer. There are a number of other helpful tips at foodsafety.gov.

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