A recent study conducted by the CDC revealed that correctional inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a food-related illness than the general population.
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Mariel A. Marlow, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist with the CDC, lead author on the study, notes there are several reasons why the risk of foodborne illness is higher for correctional inmates.
“Compared to the general population, inmates have an increased risk for infection related to crowding, not enough handwashing areas, poor hygiene, and lack of training in sanitation and disease prevention among inmates,” she says. “Inmates are completely dependent on institutional food safety practices. Moreover, they have less access than the general public to report foodborne illness directly to a state or local health department.”
The study, entitled “Foodborne Disease Outbreaks in Correctional Institutions—United States, 1998–2014,” was published in the July 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, and found correctional foodborne outbreaks are routinely among the largest outbreaks each year as inmates suffer a disproportionate number of outbreak-associated foodborne illness. In fact, between 1998 to 2014, there were 200 foodborne outbreaks in correctional institutions, resulting in 20,625 illnesses, 204 hospitalizations, and five deaths.
Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, headquartered in Lake Worth, Fla., states one reason that prisons have an increase in foodborne illnesses are they are not inspected by health food inspectors with the same level of scrutiny as a restaurant or other non-prison facility.
“There’s a stigma that prisoners aren’t as important,” he says. “Historically, prison food is pretty abysmal—spoiled or expired food is not uncommon due to budgetary issues. There is a very small amount of money to feed prisoners, and anytime you are buying lower quality, there’s potentially more problems and outbreaks of illness that could occur.”
The problem is, there is no universal rule for food safety in prisons, as state, local, and federal prisons all have different guidelines. Federal prisons adhere to the Bureau of Prisons’ Food Service Manual, which unlike the FDA’s rule book for restaurants, lacks any clear language about when a kitchen worker can start working after being sick and has no requirements for kitchen workers to be trained in food safety.
State and local prisons are responsible for their own guidelines and can follow whatever rules they want, and many aren’t too concerned with this issue.
Solving the Prison Food Problem
A way to combat the problem, Friedmann shares, is by increasing oversight on food preparation and services.
“We recommend independent oversight and holding prisons to a higher standard, to ensure you are serving quality food,” he says. “These are massive institutions, and there could be 500 to 2,000 people eating the same meal, so if something goes wrong, that impacts a lot of people. Increasing quality control would help to resolve the problem.”
Dr. Marlow says the CDC highlights four provisions in FDA’s Food Code to prevent foodborne illness in food establishments: requiring food service employees to wash their hands; prohibiting bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food; excluding ill food service staff from working until at least 24 hours after symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea, have ended; and requiring at least one employee to be a certified food protection manager.
“Teaching food safety to inmates could be an opportunity to reduce foodborne illness,” Dr. Marlow says. “This can also be an opportunity to educate the workforce as the food industry is one of the main industries that hires ex-offenders and participates in reentry programs.”
Because inmates have little choice than to consume foods served by the correctional institution, it is imperative that those foods are safe. Friedmann believes public health officials, correctional officials, and food suppliers can work together for food safety.