Food recalls are often the most noticeable result of an outbreak of foodborne illnesses, commonly known as food poisoning. Foodborne illnesses are caused not only by contamination of food products somewhere along the production line, but also by not following safety regulations or not using proper food handling practices.
The top five pathogens that contributed to domestically acquired foodborne illnesses in 2011 were Norovirus, Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens. They can cause stomach cramping, fever, diarrhea, vomiting and even death. Foodborne illness is a sickness contracted from consuming food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, toxins and parasites. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, roughly 1 in 6 Americans or 48 million people get sick. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.
Andrew Clarke, an associate professor and the undergraduate adviser chair of MU’s Food Science department said, “There are many ways in which food has been a vector for causing illness … most people recognize some type of bacteria as the biggest problem.”
Clarke said it is unrealistic to believe that all cases of foodborne illness can be stopped because bacteria are everywhere. Every surface, object and person is covered in bacteria. For the most part, bacteria are not harmful to humans and we use bacteria to make products such as yogurt, beer and pepperoni. Only a small percentage of bacteria are bad, but it is hard to distinguish the difference.
Clarke said bacteria don’t follow regulations, so the only way to decrease foodborne illnesses is to minimize their presence or growth.
The city of Columbia works to minimize foodborne illness through the Columbia and Boone County Health Department. This branch inspects every place that sells or serves food in the area. Each establishment is assigned a risk level that determines how many inspections they will have per year. A gas station with hot dog grillers will be inspected once a year, but a full-service restaurant will be inspected three to four times a year. Each restaurant is held to the same standard: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food code.
“Our goal when we inspect is never to go out and find all the things that are wrong,” said Andrea Waner, public information officer at the health department. “Our goal is to educate people and find out ways to make it better because if you think about it, somebody who owns a restaurant, their goal is not to make you sick. Their goal is to serve you food and to make a profit for their business. So what we want to do is make sure that they’re reaching their goals and people are staying safe and healthy.”
Another way to keep consumers safe is through food recalls. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service reported 150 recalls in 2015. The previous year’s number of recalls was much lower at 94, and the average from 2005-2015 was about 77.
Ingolf Gruen, MU food science professor and program chair, said the Food and Drug Administration recently received the authority to force companies to comply with recalls. Before, the recalls were voluntary,.
So if there were only 150 food recalls in 2015, why are the numbers of foodborne illness cases so much higher? This is because food recalls impact only a small part of all foodborne illnesses.
Food recalls include anything from chicken with salmonella to a product that has been mislabeled. On the other hand, foodborne illness happens anywhere: restaurants, packaging plants, at home, etc. If a person contracts salmonella because he or she did not cook the poultry properly, a food “recall” is not necessary. In other words, not all food recalls are related to foodborne illnesses and not all foodborne illness cases are cause for recalls.
“If the company is aware that there are issues, their best route of saving face is by issuing a recall,” Gruen said. “I think it’s more of an awareness and actually doing the right thing rather than before when we might be tempted to push things under the carpet.”
In addition, Waner stressed that high numbers of both recalls and foodborne illness cases are made more complicated because of poor communication.
“So often you hear that there was salmonella in peanut butter, and everybody freaks out,” Waner said. “That’s a very reactive story rather than, ‘Hey it’s fourth of July and here’s all of these things that you can do to make sure you stay safe.’
“Switching the mode toward proactive communication to the public is huge. We can’t assume that they know these things; we have to educate them. Communication and education are the basis for understanding and alleviating a lot of these fears.”
In fact, Waner said that it is important that people at every level of food production and preparation are aware of their responsibility to keep food safe for consumption; that goes for consumers, too.
“People tend to think, ‘I’m cooking at home, it’s not a big deal,’ ” Waner said. “But we want you to practice, when possible, the same level of safety you would expect in a restaurant.” Holding everyone to a high standard can decrease the number of foodborne illness cases.
Clarke agrees that good food handling practices in the home do go a long way, but what should people know in order to ensure safety when cooking at home?
“The same basic rules that are drilled into our heads since we were kids,” Clarke said. “Wash your hands. Refrigerate your leftovers. Clean everything up. Use soap and water to wash things and don’t cross contaminate.”
Grilling season brings with it even more opportunities for contamination in home kitchens. In order to ensure all food is safe and healthy this summer, the USDA recommends following these easy steps to achieve safe grilling practices:
- Marinate all meat in the refrigerator not on the counter.
- Bring coolers full of ice packs outside to store meat until it is ready to be put on the grill. Keep all meat refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
- Bring out plenty of plates and utensils. Make some plates designated for raw meat and some for cooked meat to decrease the chance of cross contamination.
- Precook meat in the microwave if possible to decrease grill time. Make sure the meat goes from the microwave to the grill immediately.
- Cook all meat to their specific required temperature:
- Poultry: 165 °F
- Ground meats (other than poultry): 160 °F
- Beef, pork, lamb and veal: 145 °F