Aug 31, 2016
Food safety concerns have roots in ag production

People have been getting sick from eating food for as long as humans have been eating food. In the last few years, as the federal government has tightened safety regulations across the food supply chain to prevent foodborne illness, produce growers and processors have been compelled to comply with new prevention-based controls.

In the past several years, USDA has released initial and final Produce Safety Rules as required under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011. These rules established mandatory practices that farmers must adopt to prevent microbial contamination of fresh produce.

This represented a new approach toward preventing foodborne illnesses, according to Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Instead of relying only on periodic visits from a state or federal inspector, food businesses are charged to take a preventative, instead of a reactive, approach,” he said.

“Growers and processors are responsible for understanding potential risks in their operations and developing science-based measures to control those risks before a problem actually occurs,” LaBorde said.

And those problems are frequent. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 48 million people – one in six Americans – get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases. News stories reporting outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States are all too frequent.

The good news is that food-safety experts believe these illnesses are largely preventable.

The new federal food safety rules cover only fresh produce that is sold commercially. The focus is on fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and sprouts that typically are eaten raw, not commodities that generally are cooked or further processed. For example, potatoes, eggplant, winter squash, beets and beans for drying are exempt.

To comply with these new food safety regulations, the food industry needs education and training, LaBorde said. “A highly trained workforce is the best defense against food safety and sanitation lapses and the health and economic consequences that might result.”

History of challenges

Michelle Jarvie, Michigan State University Extension educator, investigated the history of food safety.

She determined the first suggested case of a known foodborne illness was proposed by doctors from the University of Maryland, who think that Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. from a case of typhoid fever when he and his army stopped to rest in ancient Babylon. Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, which can be contracted from contaminated food or water.

“Although this theory can never be fully proven, it goes to show that humans have probably been affected by these illnesses through all of history,” Jarvie said.

Other well-known people throughout history are also suspect to have died from foodborne illnesses, including King Henry I, Rudyard Kipling, President Zachary Taylor and Prince Albert.

Jarvie said in the U.S. foodborne pathogens have played roles in settling territory and fighting wars. Many historians believe that the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia was decimated by typhoid fever many times between 1607 and 1699, ultimately leading to its demise. Also in the late 1600s a toxic fungus changed the course of history and led to the Salem witch trials. The fungus, which was growing on the rye used for food, caused many symptoms that settlers were unfamiliar with, which led to the accusation of witchcraft and killing of those infected. In 1898 typhoid fever struck again during the Spanish- American War, sickening over 20,000 American soldiers.

According to Jarvie, in more modern history, some of the biggest outbreaks occurred starting in the early 1900s with streptococcus in raw milk, botulism in canned olives and Salmonella typhi in oysters. Those outbreaks ultimately caused a few hundred deaths. Similar outbreaks continued to occur during the first half of the 20th century in America.

The latter half of the century, and into the 2000s, has seen a major spike in the number of outbreaks across the country. Listeriosis was the culprit of one such major outbreak in 1985, Jarvie said. It was responsible for the largest number of food related deaths since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) started recording data. That year also saw roughly 200,000 people sick from contaminated milk.

Possibly the most infamous outbreak, known as the Jack in the Box incident, happened in 1993, when four children died from E. coli contaminated hamburgers. Major outbreaks in the 2000s include the 2006 E. coli outbreak from contaminated spinach that caused five deaths, a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that caused nine deaths and sickened 714 in 46 states in 2008-2009, and the 2011 listeria outbreak on cantaloupes that caused 33 deaths and one miscarriage.

“Nearly every day now you can read news about another foodborne illness outbreak or food recall somewhere in the U.S.,” Jarvie said.

In 2014 alone, there were at least eight major multi-state investigations done by the CDC, and countless other reports of localized illness. Every year the CDC estimates that about one in six people will contract a foodborne illness.

“Most likely we will all have had at least one in our lifetimes, most likely more,” Jarvie said.

Jarvie said the collection of foodborne illness data is relatively new. “The Jungle,” written by Upton Sinclair and published in February 1906, was a novel that portrayed the lives of immigrants in industrialized cities of that time, but the book inadvertently raised public concern about the health, safety and sanitation practices of the Chicago meat packing industry.

“Although the book was published as fiction, Sinclair spent nearly nine months in 1904, undercover, as an employee in a Chicago meat packing plant,” Jarvie said.

Upon reading the book, President Theodore Roosevelt called on Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which were both passed in June 1906. They were the first U.S. laws that addressed the safety of the public food supply. Both of these laws defined “misbranding” and “adulteration” in food, which primarily means they were concerned with truth in labeling and food additives – in those days many food preservatives (like formaldehyde and borax) were added to products to disguise unsanitary production processes.

Jarvie said one of the first major court battles involving the Pure Food and Drug Act was an attempt to outlaw Coca-Cola due to its excessively high caffeine content. This law was the precursor to the formation of what is now called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Meat Inspection Act led to the formation of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service. Recorded U.S. deaths from food-related illness dropped significantly over the first decade after these laws were enacted.

Jarvie said between 1906 and 1938, many more similar acts were created that monitored food additives like colors and chemical additions, as well as labeling and marketing of foods. The winter of 1924-1925 brought what is possibly the worst foodborne illness outbreak known to date.

“The outbreak was typhoid fever that had been spread through improperly handled oysters, and was the first outbreak to gain nationwide attention,” she said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1969 that the FDA began sanitation programs, specifically for shellfish, as well as milk and the foodservice industry as a whole.”

In 1970, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began keeping records on foodborne illness related deaths in the U.S.

“This is really the starting point for data on modern foodborne illness outbreaks,” Jarvie said. “A nationwide illness outbreak from canned mushrooms in 1973 led to the first major food recall in the U.S., causing the removal of over 75 million cans of mushrooms from store shelves.”

Due to this outbreak, the National Botulism Surveillance was developed to collect reports and data from all confirmed botulism cases in the U.S. In the same year, low acid food processing regulations were set forth to ensure proper heat treating of canned foods.

In 1997, a few years after the Jack in the Box incident, the Clinton administration put $43 million into a food safety initiative that created many of the regulations that are seen and heard about today, Jarvie said.

“This initiative brought regulations on seafood, meat and poultry processing, and shell eggs. It also created a program for DNA fingerprinting that would help track outbreaks and determine sources of outbreaks,” she said.

Finally, the initiative called for a cooperative detection and response effort between the CDC, FDA, USDA and local agencies called FoodNet.

FSMA a game-changer

Today, there is FSMA, which was signed into law in 2011and is considered the most significant food safety legislation in over 70 years.

“The major difference between this act and those of the past is that the focus has switched from responding, to contamination, to prevention,” Jarvie said. “The law gives the FDA authority to regulate the way foods are grown, harvested and processed. Although the act is still in its infancy, many are hoping to see fewer illness outbreaks in the future due to tighter regulations.

“One of the main reasons we are more aware of food safety issues and foodborne illness is the fact that science has advanced,” Jarvie said. “As little as 50 years ago we didn’t have the technology necessary to detect some microbes that had existed for centuries. Many illness-causing microbes, like Campylobacter jejuni, weren’t linked to human illness or identified as a foodborne pathogen until the 1970s or later.

“Better microscopes, more thorough testing procedures, and more testing in general has made us a society that is more aware of the microbiology around us,” Jarvie said. “Only recently have we acquired the capability to gather samples from sick people around the globe, test potential contaminated foods, match those two samples to find the culprit of the illness, and then track the food back to where it came from – all of this in less than 24 hours.”

Jarvie said that 50 years ago it may have taken weeks to link multiple illnesses in the same state, if it happened at all, and the incidents most likely never made the news unless numerous people died from the outbreak. Such advances in science have led to food recalls that hit the media and spark local, national and even global awareness.

“Another reason there is generally more awareness surrounding food safety is that microbes are constantly changing, and many ‘old’ microbes are resurfacing in new and surprising places,” Jarvie said.

Vibrio cholerae, better known as cholera, hadn’t been found in the Americas for over 100 years, but was suddenly showing up again in the early 1990s, Jarvie said. Traditionally thought of as a disease of countries with poor sanitation, cases were showing up in the U.S., and eventually linked to contaminated imported foods.

“Now, global food chains and the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables year-round (like strawberries in December) are potentially bringing pathogens to a grocery store near you,” she said. “Older microbes are also mutating into more virulent strains, some of them antibiotic resistant. One such example is salmonella, which we have experienced the perils of for centuries (typhoid fever), but newer, resistant strains like Salmonella typhimurium DT104 are surfacing regularly. Some speculate that overuse of antibiotics in food animals, as well as humans, may be contributing to these new resistant forms of old bacteria, but the jury is still out.”

Cultural shifts in the way we interact with the environment around us, as well as changing the ways in which food is raised may also contribute to raised incidence and awareness of foodborne illness, Jarvie said.

A good example of this is E. coli, which has existed since the beginning of time. Some strains are already present inside the human body and don’t cause harm, but other strains, like O157:H7 can be deadly, she said.

“No matter what the reasons, microbes are here to stay,” Jarvie said.

And for growers and processors, so are the regulations that monitor produce production.

— Gary Pullano, associate editor

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