Food safety

In the United States, agencies exist on the federal, state, and local levelsto ensure a safe food supply and, in general, the food supply is very safe. However, as many as 81 million people experience foodborne illness annually, and an estimated 9,000 people die as a result. According to the Food and DrugAdministration, almost everyone experiences a food-borne illness at least once a year, although many people don't realize it at the time. Most of these illnesses result from bacterial or viral contamination of food.

Producers, distributors, and consumers all share responsibility in ensuring safe food. Three different government agencies are responsible for regulatingand watching out for the safety of the U.S. food supply: the U.S. Departmentof Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The USDA monitors the safety of meat, poultry, and eggs across the country; it also regulates the use of food and color additives in meat and pooultry,and inspects eggs and egg products. The Food Safety and Inspection Service within the USDA is responsible for inspecting meatand poultry products sold in other states and abroad. FSIS can recall unsafeor suspicious products once they're on grocery shelves, and consults closelywith the food industry on product labels and consumer information.

The FDA is responsible for all food (other than meat and poultry) sold in other states and focuses on surprise inspections and food samplings. It sets safety limits for drug residues in milk, eggs, poultry and meat, and for some chemical contaminants in fish. It also tests for pesticide residue limits in everything except meat and poultry and regulates all food labelling except meat, poultry and alcoholic beverages. The FDA is also responsible for food additives.

Pesticides are the problem of the EPA, which must regulate the manufacture, labeling, and use of all pesticides. It also sets the tolerance levels for residue on food sold in the U.S> and sets national public drinking water standards.

Improper handling at any stage, from production and processing at a factory to preparation and storage at home, can cause food that was safe to become unsafe. Modern production and distribution systems open the door for problems that were not anticipated when congress passed the first food safety laws in 1906. In the last 20 years or so, individual food processing facilities have become very large and a single instance of contamination can result in tons offood being affected.

New infectious diseases are continually emerging as old ones have turned up in new places or have adapted to antibiotics. Changes in dietary habits also affect the amount of risks consumers face. More people than ever are eating out on a regular basis, giving them little control over food preparation.

In addition, higher demand for fresh fruits and vegetables has increased theamount of food imports coming into the country. Americans now import 30 billion tons of food each year (often from developing countries where basic sanitation is not the best). If safety standards are not followed in the countriesof origin, these foods carry the risk of contamination. Since distribution systems reach over the entire globe, tracing illnesses back to the source of contamination can be very difficult.

Food safety concerns are generally biological, chemical, or physical in nature. The vast majority of foodborne illnesses are due to biological contaminants, primarily bacteria and viruses.

Bacterial/Viral Contamination

Common ones include:

  • Campylobacter jejuni in raw or undercookedmeats, unpasteurized milk, and untreated water
  • Salmonella inundercooked meats and eggs or in dairy products, seafood, fruits, and vegetables
  • hepatitis A virus from foods contaminated by human feces
  • Shigella from dairy products, poultry, and raw vegetables
  • Clostridium botulinum (botulism) from improperly canned foods, sausages, meat products, and seafood
  • Escherichia coli O157:H7 from undercooked hamburgers or unpasteurized milk
  • Listeria monocytogenesin unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses and ice cream, raw vegetables, undercooked deli meats, and seafood
  • Staphylococcus aureus in cooked foods that contain a lot of protein
  • Helicobacter Pylori in water
  • Cryptosporidium in water
  • Cyclospora Cayetanesisin water and fruit
  • Anisakis in raw or undercooked fish and shellfish (especially sushi)
  • Yersinia in pork products, milk, oysters, fish, beef, lamb and game
  • Vibrio vulnificus and V. parahaemolyticus in raw or undercooked seafood
  • Giardia lamblia in contaminated water and raw vegetables

Chemical Contamination

Chemicals are routinely added to processed foods to preserve them and to enhance flavor and appearance. These chemicals have been tested and are believedto be safe. However, some additives, such as artificial sweeteners or fat substitutes, carry warnings about potential bad effects of eating them. Althoughmany consumers worry about artificial chemicals, naturally occurring chemicals can be more dangerous. Allergy-producing substances, called allergens, area major concern. Some people have dangerous, potentially fatal allergic reactions to chemicals found in peanuts, tree nuts (e.g., walnuts, pecans, and almonds), shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, fish, and wheat. Other naturally-occurring chemicals are added to foods as dietary supplements, but there may not be proof that these are either effective or safe. In rare cases, chemicals get into food accidentally and the potential exists for pesticides, animal drug residues, or cleaning substances to show up in foods. Other chemical hazards mayarise from environmental pollution.

Keeping Food Safe

Hazard identification and prevention are the best means of making sure that food is safe. Producers and processors are required to handle food under sanitary conditions to prevent biological contamination. They must also use precautions to prevent chemical and physical contaminants from getting into food.

Food processors often use a new inspection and prevention system called the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, which was first implemented in 1998. Through HACCP programs, processors identify everything that can go wrong and then take specific steps to prevent these problems. At the processing level, there also needs to be proper attention to labeling. Labelingis meant to inform consumers of nutritional aspects of the food as well as toalert them to potential allergens. Food has to be transported and stored properly using refrigeration to prevent spoiling and the growth of microorganisms. This system replaced the old "poke and sniff" approach that had been usedin this country for the past 90 years.

Consumers need to be just as careful at home. To prevent foodborne illness, consumers should:

  • wash hands before preparing food
  • thoroughly cook meats according to safety guidelines
  • prepare food on clean surfaces
  • once a week, sanitize sink, conters, utensils and cutting boards with chlorine solution
  • wash kitchen sponges every week (or run throughdishwasher)
  • keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot
  • don't allow food to marinate at room temperature
  • thorougnly wash fresh fruitsand vegetables even if the package indicates that the product has already been washed
  • discard bulging cans, mold, discoloration, and bad flavor orodor
  • if a consumer has any doubts about a food, it should not be eaten.

How to Report Suspected Food Poisoning

Consumers should report possible food poisoning in three situations:

  • if the food was eaten at a large gathering
  • if the food came from a restaurant or other kitchen that serves more than a few patrons
  • if the food is a commercial product

When reporting apotential food contamination problem, consumers should be able to provide their name, address and phone number, when and where food was eaten, who ate it, anme and address of the place where the food was served. Ifthe food is a commercial product, the consumer should be able to report the brand and prod uct name, size and package type, can or package codes and dates, name and location of store, date item was purchased.

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