Focus on food safety to prevent illness

Learn how to ensure that the food you eat, and serve to family members, is safe.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illness (at times referred to as foodborne disease, foodborne infection or food poisoning) is common and costly but very preventable. How costly you ask? According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), health experts estimate yearly costs of all foodborne diseases in the U.S. alone is 5 to 6 billion dollars in direct medical expenses and lost productivity. How common? In the United States, each year foodborne diseases result in 48 million people becoming sick, 128,000 requiring hospitalization and over 3,000 dying. Even more sobering are reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) that note that each year, over 2 million people die worldwide because of unsafe food and water.

What is causing these foodborne illnesses and how can one protect themselves and their families from becoming a statistic? Bacteria, viruses, parasites and natural or manmade chemicals in food products can contaminate food and make people ill. There are more than 250 known foodborne diseases ranging from diarrhea to cancers. One may contract a debilitating infection such as meningitis or suffer acute poisoning resulting in a long-lasting disability or death. Contamination can originate at several points along the food chain…during animal slaughter, during food processing if handled by an infected person or cross-contaminated by other raw agricultural products, and when improperly refrigerated or heated by users. It is extremely important to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. As most of these microbes or toxins enter our body through the gastrointestinal tract, the CDC states that nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea are common symptoms in many cases. Because of the number of different foodborne diseases, symptoms vary and can make an accurate diagnosis difficult.

Experts at WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified several factors that further contribute to the incidence of foodborne illness. New threats to food safety including changes in food production, distribution and consumption continue to be discovered. While globalization has created many new markets economically, it has also made both officials and consumers more aware of the importance of ensuring that food safety systems are adequate in all countries involved in world trade. Increases in international travel is yet another avenue for harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemicals contained in unsafe food to spread farther and more quickly than ever before.

While at times only an individual becomes ill after consuming unsafe food, more often those who shared a meal at a restaurant, potluck or catered event will become ill. Sometimes shoppers at several different stores will purchase the same contaminated item and report family members becoming ill after eating the product. Foods which are most often found to be the cause of foodborne illness are raw foods of animal origin. This includes raw seafood (fish, crustaceans, shellfish), raw or undercooked meats, poultry, and eggs, and unpasteurized milk. If raw milk, eggs or ground beef are combined to make a product, the risk of foodborne illness is increased.

Some foodborne illnesses have also occurred after consuming raw fruits and vegetables that may have been improperly handled. This can include use of fresh manure as fertilizer, irrigating or rinsing in water contaminated with animal feces or handling by sick workers. Be aware that washing raw fruits and vegetables before eating is recommended but may not completely eliminate the contamination. Drinking raw (i.e. unpasteurized) juices can also cause foodborne illness.

Foodborne illness can be especially devastating and dangerous for individuals who have compromised immune systems. This includes people who are undergoing, or have previously undergone, cancer treatment, as a weakened immune system is a common side-effect of chemotherapy, radiation and some cancer medications. These individuals are more susceptible to infections and if they develop a foodborne illness, theirs is likely to be more serious and last longer. They need to be very vigilant in what they eat and how it is prepared. Other high-risk groups are HIV-positive individuals, pregnant women, and the elderly as immune systems weaken as we age.

Individuals all along the food chain including farmers, manufacturers, vendors and consumers play an important part in ensuring food safety. Experts are currently exploring critical issues that need to be addressed. Topics under discussion include careful disposal of animal manure while providing safer food and water for animals to prevent contamination at that point in the human food chain. The importance of teaching food safety to restaurant workers, school children and others has been discussed as one means of limiting further contamination. Also of concern is the growing number of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. This complicates treatment of many medical conditions and may force doctors to prescribe a drug that could be more expensive, less effective, and potential more toxic to the patient.

WHO has published a toolkit “From Farm To Plate, Make Food Safe” that offers suggestions for both policymakers and consumers interested in making food safer. Resolve today to practice their Five Keys to Safer Food while preparing food: keep clean, separate raw and cooked food, cook thoroughly, cook food at safe temperatures and use safe water and raw materials.

For more information about food safety, visit the Safe Food & Water page of the Michigan State University Extension website or contact your local county Extension office.

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