Foodborne Pathogens: A Fresh Look at a Dirty Problem

It’s Sunday afternoon. A Philadelphia family is enjoying a fruit salad made with bananas from Ecuador, oranges from California, strawberries from Mexico and grapes from Chile. By Wednesday evening, they’re all in the hospital fighting stomach cramps and food poisoning from E. coli. It’s the industry’s worst nightmare, and unfortunately, it’s happening more frequently today than anyone would like, due—ironically—to several industry trends aimed at increasing customer satisfaction.

The techniques of growing, harvesting, slaughtering, processing and selling food are evolving at a breakneck pace. Corporate consolidation, transportation efficiencies and marketplace globalization mean produce growers; meat, poultry and seafood processors and supermarket retailers can now offer consumers more variety than ever before.

But some consumers are paying price for that variety with their health, and sometimes even their lives. Higher production density, a global food chain, and a growing array of prepared foods are increasing the risk of spreading dangerous foodborne pathogens.

No one wants this to happen, and when the issue is raised with key industry executives they assert they’re doing everything they can do to minimize risks. But are they?

To have a real impact on these dangers, the produce and processing industries must take a fresh look at existing safety standards and procedures, and start taking food safety as seriously as we take consumer demands for variety, convenience, and reasonable prices.

This means re-evaluating long-held beliefs, increasing on-site measurement for microbial pathogens, and deploying the latest food safety technologies everywhere food is stored, processed, and displayed.

New Trends, New Risks

Higher production density is making it harder to curb the spread of pathogens. Not even large multinational corporations such as Dole, Chiquita, Kraft, Smithfield, ConAgra, Tyson, Cargill and others are exempt.

No matter how unsanitary a local farm might have been in our grandparents’ day, and no matter how plentiful their highest yields, they weren’t storing millions of apples in 250,000 cubic-foot cold storage units or exporting 12 million boxes of fruit each year to countries around the world.

Such density gives a dark new meaning to the old adage, “one rotten apple spoils the bunch”. Whether it is an apple, head of lettuce, piece of meat, or other food, just one spoiled item can sometimes infect others hundreds of feet away, which in turn infect still more. The reason: more than 80 percent of food contaminants can spread by air.

The risk is just as great for beef processors slaughtering 500 cattle an hour, or pork processors raising 2,500 pigs in a pen. In these environments, a single animal infected by disease, bacteria or viruses can quickly spread the germs to hundreds of others.

Globalization only magnifies the problem. While expanding variety and making “out-of-season” a bygone concept, the global supply chain also multiplies opportunities for exposure to pathogens, which then spread rapidly through high density storage, transportation, and production environments. This hits produce hardest, because it’s routinely imported, exported, and processed at various points around the globe.

Paired with high density in production at multi-national companies, globalization is contributing to the number of foodborne illnesses among consumers, despite current safety measures.

The evidence: Produce now accounts for 12 percent of all foodborne illnesses, up from 1 percent of illnesses in the 1970’s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s no surprise, since produce is now stored longer, moves greater distances and is offered in more varieties from more global sources than ever before.

It can be argued that the explosion of prepared foods is also contributing to the recent increases in foodborne sicknesses. The more food is moved, washed, cut, seasoned, cooked, marinated, blended, and otherwise processed or prepared before reaching the consumer, the more it’s exposed to potentially harmful pathogens.

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