Once, I experienced a massive outbreak of what was assumed to be food poisoning, though it was never officially diagnosed. The symptoms were unmistakable: stomach pain and nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and the sense that my body was in “eruption mode.”
The atmosphere was unpleasant, to say the least, and made me appreciate the safety precautions that food establishments, industries and workers are asked to carefully observe. It also made me appreciate the multiple opportunities for contamination, infection or spoilage of foods that occur somewhere along the chain between harvest/production and consumption.
Let’s take cantaloupe, for example. From the moment the cantaloupe seed is planted, its caretaker must ensure that it is grown with clean water and protected from harmful chemicals or waste products. Once the cantaloupe has grown and been harvested, it must be transported quickly, at the right temperatures, in the right packaging, with the right fellow cargo.
If its skin is bruised too badly, the fruit will become more susceptible to contamination. If it is distributed too slowly, it is at risk for spoilage. If it is handled by workers who are infected (or who haven’t washed their hands post-bathroom break), the fruit may also transport illness to its consumer.
Finally, if it is stored in unsuitable conditions -- either by a vendor or by the eventual eaters -- the cantaloupe is also vulnerable to becoming a carrier of foodborne illness (aka the simultaneous explosions from multiple orifices that I witnessed above). And THAT doesn’t even get in to issues of manufacturing that so many processed and packaged foods require.
It is no wonder the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration keep such a tight watch on the things we eat! And it is no surprise that outbreaks are somewhat of a frequent occurrence. But why is Food Safety one of the “Winnable Battles” of Public Health?
To begin, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is looking at improving our nation’s knowledge of foodborne illness incidence, trends and causes. This involves improving surveillance, keeping closer track of outbreaks, how and where they spread, and what is done to prevent additional contamination. It encourages ongoing information dissemination for health care providers, health department workers and members of the general public to ensure efficient diagnosis and effective treatment plans.
Finally, the CDC requires careful education of all those who handle food. By engaging members of various public sectors and levels, introducing new policies, and data collection methods, the CDC is hoping to decrease the time it takes to detect and respond to an outbreak, and reduce the rate of outbreaks through more accurate, coordinated information systems.
Thanks to new research on the different pathogens that carry foodborne illnesses, better data-collection and sharing due to national online networks and the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011, we have many of the tools necessary to realize the food safety goals laid out by the CDC.
What can you do to contribute to the battle?
1. Ensure that the food you eat and prepare is cooked thoroughly, stored at an appropriate temperature and cleaned properly.
2. Know the symptoms of food poisoning and report any suspected cases to your local health department.
3. Wash your hands! Don’t prepare foods for other people if you are vomiting or have diarrhea.
4. Visit http://www.cdc.gov/WinnableBattles/FoodSafety/index.html for more information about food safety, what you can do and what is being done at a systems level.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (June 2011.) "Making Food Safer to Eat: From the Farm to the Table." Vital Signs. http://www.cdc.gov/VitalSigns/FoodSafety/index.html#Prevention.
Food Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . Web. Oct. 18, 2011.
Reviewed October 19, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Malu Banuelos