There are also behavioral reasons why prepared foods may increase infection risk. Most consumers know to wash and, where appropriate, cook unprepared produce, meat, and poultry before consumption. But almost no one takes precautions with prepared foods. They just assume prepared foods are safe when, in fact, if handled incorrectly, they can be riskier than foods bought raw and cooked at home.
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Explore This IssueFebruary/March 2006
Produce is now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of food poisoning than meat, poultry, or eggs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But meat and poultry outbreaks, while now outpaced by produce, remain a critical problem.
Consider Dole Food Co.’s recall of 250,000 bags of pre-cut salads last October. Dozens of consumers were infected with E. coli. Then, there was the E. coli outbreak in January that sickened 18 people who drank infected milk in Washington State. There were also three deaths in Australia that were linked to processed meat infected with Listeria.
Pets are not even safe, as shown by the recent recall of 19 varieties of dog and cat food sold in 23 states by Diamond Pet Food Co. (Gaston, S.C.). The contaminated food contained aflatoxin, a potentially lethal chemical that killed dozens of dogs.
Despite these outbreaks, many food growers, shippers, processors and retailers are failing to address the danger posed by new industry trends. That’s surprising, since a large-scale outbreak poses a financial risk to literally every company along the food chain.
Companies often fear that acknowledging contamination risks could be perceived as an admission of guilt. That’s inhibiting progress, and preventing far too many organizations, large and small, from exploring new and better ways to fight harmful pathogens.
Food Safety’s Future
An effort to minimize foodborne illnesses begins with measuring the problem at every point along the supply chain. This is a simple, vital, and an often overlooked step. It takes but one unsanitary link in the chain to contaminate all the food passing through it.
The results of measurement can be alarming.
There are poorly run produce growers that don’t provide wash facilities for their field hands. There are supermarkets preparing contaminated chicken dinners because their utensils aren’t disinfected. And there are companies transporting food in box cars and trailers with bacteria and mold counts as high as 5,000 colony forming units (CFU’s) per cubic meter. That’s 50 times higher than ready-to-eat food safety levels, which are closer to 100 CFU’s per cubic meter.
These aren’t worst case scenarios. These are illustrations of what’s happening now across the country, and across our industry. For all the science that goes into growing and processing food, many companies still lag far behind in the science of measuring and eradicating pathogens.
For example, the third-shift nightly chemical cleanings at many food processing plants just aren’t good enough anymore. Even the most diligent organizations can’t sterilize every machine surface, conveyor belt, or corner of the work floor.
And pathogens that aren’t killed are stronger for the experience. Organisms such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Botrytis and others can grow in geometric proportions with the right combinations of temperature and humidity. Produce growers and food processors have to be fighting that pathogen growth around the clock.
One of the newest and most effective methods that can be added to a company’s safety program is aggressive air purification. Some of today’s advanced air purifiers can quickly reduce pathogen-levels in cold storage facilities and food processing environments by 3 to 5 log or more—without producing harmful by-products. That’s impressive, since each “log” of reduction stands for a 10-fold, or 90 percent reduction in bacteria numbers.