Thursday, April 23, 2009

Food Borne Illness Rates hold at 1996-1998 levels: What is to be done?

While severe outbreak of illness from food poisoning and contamination have not been uncommon over the past few years, the occurrence of the most common food illnesses has changed very little for the better over the past three years if not exceeded from previous years. Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Listeria, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, and Yersinia are just a few of the bacteria included in these occurrences. In the case of Salmonella, however, reported cases of food containment have increased over the past three years unlike the other bacteria species. The incidence rate of Salmonella occurrences remains now at 1996-1998 levels at approximately 14-16 cases per every 100,000 people. That number is over double of the government’s anticipated rate for Salmonella occurrences by 2010 without even considering the number of Salmonella cases associated with peanut butter companies this year. This study also does not even include the entire country but just its most major states including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee. Of the 18,499 laboratory-confirmed cases of contamination from bacteria, found in 2008, Salmonella was found to be the most common cause, with 7,444 cases reported, followed by Campylobacter that had approximately 2,000 less cases.
During the course of this past year, several companies were found to be at fault for the spreading Salmonella to the U.S. population, however, companies associated with nut products were found to be the most commonly at fault for food contamination due to Salmonella. One company in particular, Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. has been found to be very associated with Salmonella contamination. Setton Pistachio is the second largest producer of pistachios in the U.S. with approximately 5,000 acres of growing fields. The company faced a food recall in the 2008 crop year with any food product containing traces of pistachios having an expiration date of Jan 6th and 9th, 2010. After further investigation from the California Department of Public Health and the F.D.A., however, the Salmonella situation of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. was reported as “critical”, and was found to have failed to the adherence to Good Manufacturing Practices. As a result, all nuts now processed in 2008 were recalled regardless to expiration date.
While it is a scary thought that one of the most major nut companies in the U.S. was found to have bacterial contamination of Salmonella in their products, what might even more scary to think about is that it was discovered that the company was completely aware of their Salmonella contamination at the time and continued to sell their products to the general public regardless. The assistant commissioner for food production , David Acheson, told the Washington Post that internal testing prior to public release of information showed that bacteria was present on the nuts. Managers of Setton Pistachio of terra Bella decided that the nuts could be run through the roasting process a second time then sold to the public, however, the same machinery was possibly used to process raw, uncontaminated nuts as the contaminated already roasted nuts, causing the possible spread of Salmonella to the raw nuts as well. The F.D.A. found several strains of Salmonella at Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella, Inc., and several disease have been reported as a result. The F.D.A. first learned of this Salmonella issue back in March when Kraft Foods had reported traces of Salmonella in the company’s product “Back to Nature” trail mix where the nuts in the mix came from Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella, Inc.
Since the end of March, however, several other companies including Frito-Lay, Kroger Co., John B. Sanfilippo, Publix Supermarkets, Inc., Whole Foods Market, Fritz Company, Inc., and Pine River Pre-Pack Inc have started recalls. A website at this point of time has been established by the F.D.A to track products that have been recalled. Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella, Inc. has also created a website under the F.D.A. to inform consumers what products have not been recalled.
As a result of this Salmonella scare, California lawmakers have proposed legislation that requires food processors to undergo testing regularly and that positive results for testing should be reported to state authorities within 24 hours. Is this really enough though? Salmonella, along with several other species of bacteria, can be fatal is an infection is not treated. This legislation also fails to set up any strict means of testing that specifies what kinds of testing should be administered. This legislation also fails to apply to the entire U.S.; It only applies to California. California is not the only state that faces food safety issues. To make a true difference in our country, all the states need to comply with the suggested legislation. Our country’s attitude towards food safety is reflected in Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. On page 207, Dr. Russel Cross, an employee of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said years back, “The presence of bacteria in raw meat, including E. coli O157:H7, although undesirable, is unavoidable, and not cause for condemnation of the product.” E. coli is one of the most lethal bacteria if consumed. Salmonella may take millions of bacteria to cause damage to a human being; however, it only takes a few E. coli to kill a human being. While the replacement for Dr. Cross was proactive in encouraging testing of meat for E. coli, the American Meat Institute immediately filed for suit again the USDA for meat testing. Although the USDA won in federal court, a great point can be made. There are several Americans out there that are ignorant to the fact that they food they eat could kill them if it is not processed correctly. Also since the USDA cannot demand a recall by federal law ( page 211 of Fast Food Nation), it is up to the food companies to decide whether or not to set up a recall for their products they make a business over and to potentially lose faithful customers from as a result. Additionally, the USDA by law must report every Class I recall to the public, however, the USDA is not allowed to report where the containment product is being sold. Without knowledge of where it is sold, how can one avoid buying the noncontaminated product over the contaminated product?
One could also look at the other side too though. Bacteria thrives in almost any and every environment. Some foods like yogurt even contain bacteria for sale to the public. They are enormous numbers of species of bacteria out there and to tract all traces of bacteria in our food would be impossible. Our food would not be processed at such a great rate and could cause production costs to increase, leading for the general public to pay more from the same food in the end. We must distinguish harmful bacteria from all the species of known bacteria if we like to see our food processed at the same rate. Additionally, highly advanced forms of testing are not cost effective and can cause a decrease in the company’s profits and an increase of what we pay for our food.
For the safety of the general public, we must come to a conclusion. Any food that undergoes processing should be tested for the most common and most dangerous types of microorganisms. This will help put the public’s safety in better terms. To compensate for the necessary amount of testing, companies should receive funding from the federal government to compensate some of the costs of testing for the good of its people. This way the companies are more willing to participate in testing their products for microorganisms and will be more content with less legal troubles resulting from food contamination. In the end, the general public might have to pay higher taxes; however, losing one’s life to food contamination and poisoning can never be compensated for. Life is priceless, money is not

References:
Eric Schlosser. Fast Food Nation. New York. Houghton Mifflin Company.2004.
Eric Schroeder. “Foodborne illness rates holding at 1996-98 levels.” FoodBusinessNews.net. April 14, 2009. Food Business News.
http://www.foodbusinessnews.net/news/headline_stories.asp?ArticleID=101619

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