Title: Importance of Food Safety
“Food safety is a scientific discipline describing handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness. This includes a number of routines that should be followed to avoid potentially severe health hazards”
The great majority of people will experience a foodborne disease at some point in their lives. This highlights the importance of making sure the food we eat is not contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, toxins and chemicals.
Food can become contaminated at any point during production, distribution and preparation. Everyone along the production chain, from producer to consumer, has a role to play to ensure the food we eat does not cause diseases.
In recent years, large multi-state or nationwide foodborne outbreaks have become more commonly recognized. Improved surveillance systems in the United States are better at identifying outbreaks that would previously have been missed. Changing patterns in global food production have resulted in food being distributed over large distances. This combined with increasing integration and consolidation of agriculture and food production can result in a contaminated food rapidly causing a geographically widespread outbreak.
Public health officials investigate outbreaks to control them, to prevent additional illnesses, and to learn how to prevent similar outbreaks from happening in the future. Here we explain how the public health community detects, investigates, and controls foodborne disease outbreaks.
Foodborne illnesses are a burden on public health and contribute significantly to the cost of health care. Each year foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans (approximately 17% of people in the United States) and lead to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. A small percentage of these illnesses are the result of identified foodborne outbreaks, which happen when two or more cases of similar illnesses result from eating the same food. Investigations of foodborne outbreaks, along with analyses of data on the germs that make us sick and behaviors that contribute to food contamination, help us identify where we can make improvements in the country’s food safety system.3 This system spans from growing the food on the farm through processing, packing, distribution, transportation, and storage, to preparing it to be eaten.
Why Is Food Safety Important?
Foodborne illnesses are a preventable and underreported public health problem. These illnesses are a burden on public health and contribute significantly to the cost of health care. They also present a major challenge to certain groups of people. Although anyone can get a foodborne illness, some people are at greater risk. For example:
Children younger than age 4 have the highest incidence of laboratory-confirmed infections from some foodborne pathogens, including Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157, Shigella, and Yersinia.
People older than age 50 and those with reduced immunity are at greater risk for hospitalizations and death from intestinal pathogens commonly transmitted through foods.
Safer food promises healthier and longer lives and less costly health care, as well as a more resilient food industry.
Estimates of foodborne illness can be used to direct food safety policy and interventions. We used data from active and passive surveillance and other sources to estimate that each year 31 major pathogens acquired in the United States caused 9.4 million episodes of foodborne illness (90% credible interval [CrI] 6.6–12.7 million), 55,961 hospitalizations (90% CrI 39,534–75,741), and 1,351 deaths (90% CrI 712–2,268). Most (58%) illnesses were caused by norovirus, followed by nontyphoidal Salmonella spp. (11%), Clostridium perfringens (10%), and Campylobacter spp. (9%). Leading causes of hospitalization were nontyphoidal Salmonella spp. (35%), norovirus (26%), Campylobacter spp. (15%), and Toxoplasma gondii (8%). Leading causes of death were nontyphoidal Salmonella spp. (28%), T. gondii (24%), Listeria monocytogenes (19%), and norovirus (11%). These estimates cannot be compared with prior (1999) estimates to assess trends because different methods were used. Additional data and more refined methods can improve future estimates.
It takes several steps to get food from the farm or fishery to the dining table. We call these steps the food production chain (see graphic). Contamination can occur at any point along the chain—during production, processing, distribution, or preparation.
Production means growing the plants we harvest or raising the animals we use for food. Most food comes from domesticated animals and plants, and their production occurs on farms or ranches. Some foods are caught or harvested from the wild, such as some fish, mushrooms, and game.
Examples of Contamination in Production
If a hen’s reproductive organs are infected, the yolk of an egg can be contaminated in the hen before it is even laid.
If the fields are sprayed with contaminated water for irrigation, fruits and vegetables can be contaminated before harvest.
Fish in some tropical reefs may acquire a toxin from the smaller sea creatures they eat.
Processing means changing plants or animals into what we recognize and buy as food. Processing involves different steps for different kinds of foods. For produce, processing can be as simple as cleaning and sorting, or it can involve trimming, slicing, or shredding and bagging. Milk is usually processed by pasteurizing it; sometimes it is made into cheese. Nuts may be roasted, chopped, or ground (such as with peanut butter). For animals, the first step of processing is slaughter. Meat and poultry may then be cut into pieces or ground. They may also be smoked, cooked, or frozen and may be combined with other ingredients to make a sausage or entrée, such as a potpie.
Examples of Contamination in Processing
If contaminated water or ice is used to wash, pack, or chill fruits or vegetables, the contamination can spread to those items.
Peanut butter can become contaminated if roasted peanuts are stored in unclean conditions or come into contact with contaminated raw peanuts.
During the slaughter process, pathogens on an animal’s hide that came from the intestines can get into the final meat product.
Distribution means getting food from the farm or processing plant to the consumer or a food service facility like a restaurant, cafeteria, or hospital kitchen. This step might involve transporting foods just once, such as trucking produce from a farm to the local farmers’ market. Or it might involve many stages. For instance, frozen hamburger patties might be trucked from a meat processing plant to a large supplier, stored for a few days in the supplier’s warehouse, trucked again to a local distribution facility for a restaurant chain, and finally delivered to an individual restaurant.
Examples of Contamination in Distribution
If refrigerated food is left on a loading dock for long time in warm weather, it could reach temperatures that allow bacteria to grow.
Fresh produce can be contaminated if it is loaded into a truck that was not cleaned after transporting animals or animal products.
The contents of a glass jar that breaks in transport can contaminate nearby foods.
Preparation means getting the food ready to eat. This step may occur in the kitchen of a restaurant, home, or institution. It may involve following a complex recipe with many ingredients, simply heating and serving a food on a plate, or just opening a package and eating the food.
Examples of Contamination in Preparation
If a food worker stays on the job while he or she is sick and does not wash his or her hands carefully after using the toilet, he or she can spread pathogens by touching food.
If a cook uses a cutting board or knife to cut raw chicken and then uses the same knife or cutting board without washing it to slice tomatoes for a salad, the tomatoes can be contaminated by pathogens from the chicken.
Contamination can occur in a refrigerator if meat juices get on other items that will be eaten raw.
Mishandling at Multiple Points
Sometimes, by the time a food causes illness, it has been mishandled in several ways along the food production chain. Once contamination occurs, further mishandling of food, such as undercooking the food or leaving it out on the counter at unsafe temperatures, can make an outbreak more likely. Many pathogens grow quickly in food held at room temperature; a tiny number can grow to a large number in just a few hours. Reheating or boiling food after it has been left at room temperature for a long time does not always make it safe because some pathogens produce toxins that are not destroyed by heating.
To control the food borne illness and diseases the first step towards its control is to follow the principals of HACCP and ISO 22000. It is recommended that the food producers and manufactures should implement the ISO 22000 Food Management system to strengthen their ability to control the food contamination and food bore illness at the first point.
It’s the moral responsibility of any person who is engaged with food production or supply chain to make sure that the food or finished food product should be safe for human consumption.
The ISO 22000 family of International Standards addresses food safety management.
The consequences of unsafe food can be serious and ISO’s food safety management standards help organizations identify and control food safety hazards. As many of today’s food products repeatedly cross national boundaries, International Standards are needed to ensure the safety of the global food supply chain.
ISO 22000:2005 sets out the requirements for a food safety management system and can be certified to. It maps out what an organization needs to do to demonstrate its ability to control food safety hazards in order to ensure that food is safe. It can be used by any organization regardless of its size or position in the food chain.
Dr. Madhu Aman Sharma
Certified ISO 22000 Lead Auditor