The media and the public generally focus first on the actual pathogen when a foodborne illness occurs, eventually turning their focus to the source of the illness. Often, an infected person causes the outbreak directly—or even indirectly—through a series of improper actions or inactions. Humans can be considered the parameter of these illnesses.
The word “parameter” has many definitions. In math and statistics, it is a constant or variable term or a set of independent variables or a variable entering into the mathematical form. More generally, a parameter is a characteristic or a factor. Humans are both a constant and a variable factor in the epidemiology of foodborne illnesses.
The issue of food safety can be considered from a microbial ecological perspective, with foodborne disease falling into two key niches or source environments that people provide: soil and water, and non-fecal body fluids.
This discussion will exclude fecal and dermal, because these two sources of pathogenic contamination can be lengthy topics. And much has been described and discussed regarding good manufacturing practices (GMPs) pertaining to personal hygiene, specifically hand washing and sanitizing, which are primary control measures for fecal and dermal transmission routes. In every instance, however, proper control and prevention measures ultimately deal with the source vectors of the pathogen.
Each of these sources can and do involve multiple transmission routes. For example, in some cases, a single “lone wolf” causes the entire outbreak or contaminates other food workers who create the epidemiological thread. In other outbreaks, the food worker provides a low level of contamination through one of the four sources, and environmental conditions permit its proliferation.
These have been organized into categories of outbreaks based on the infective behavior or pattern of human-mediated contamination resulting in foodborne illnesses, as well as subsets of categories, because of the variable and dynamic nature of food handling and processing systems.1