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Author: Christian Maino Vieytes, B.S. Nutritional Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, M.S. Candidate, Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The week of September 14, 2006, is one that has gone down in the history books. It marked the first time in history that individuals in the United States were without spinach for a total of five days. Not a single vendor in the country was permitted to engage in the sale of spinach during that time due to an outbreak of E. Coli O157: H7 that had contaminated the spinach after, what is believed to have been, contact with fecal runoff originating from a nearby cattle farm.1 The event culminated in 276 cases of illness in the United States and Canada, with a total of three of those proving fatal.

The Nature of Food Safety in the United States

This event calls into question an important idea that it often overlooked in most American households, a notion that we almost take for granted. That is the concept of food safety. We rarely contemplate the origins of the foods we consume, less the safety of consuming such items. Living in today’s modern context, we assume that the food companies that provide us these goods are keeping an eye out for us. In an ultimate sense, they are, thanks to the superfluous extent of federal and state-level food regulations and strict standards that have been established. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the chief governing body that oversees roughly 80% of the nation’s food supply and maintains primary responsibility for inspecting food manufacturers and vendors.2 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is delegated the oversight and regulation of the nation’s meat, poultry, and egg products.3 The nation’s food regulation system can be hard to comprehend. But fortunately, any individual can take steps to prevent illness from happening for themselves and their families.

Strategies for Mitigating Foodborne Illness

Foodborne illness refers to any illness that develops as a result of consuming food contaminated with a particular bacterial or viral pathogen or a physical contaminant. The first and principal method for reducing the incidence of foodborne illness is to properly wash your hands before and after preparing as well as consuming food. Inadequate hand-washing, alone, is understood to be a chief instigator of foodborne illness outbreaks.4 The USDA recommends washing hands often, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.5 Second, conducting a thorough visual inspection of the food item to be consumed is critical. Evidence of mold or discoloration of the product is grounds for discarding it. Food dating is another way of reducing the likelihood of developing a foodborne illness when purchasing packaged goods at the grocery store. Most people think of “expiration dates” when they see dates on the packaging of their food. However, confusion often arises about how to interpret these dates as there are a few food dating types that are used with different intents:6

  • “Best Before” – refers to the last date at which the food product is considered to be at its best quality.
  • “Sell By” – refers to the last day that the product is to be sold, although it can remain safe to eat up to seven days past that date, as long as it is refrigerated and maintained at an adequate, safe temperature.
  • “Use By” – refers to the last day that the food should be consumed. Eating the food past this date may result in illness.

Produce Safety

Many foods, such as raw meats and fruit/vegetable produce, lack the convenient label and expiration dates that are found on packaged items. Visual assessment of the food item to be consumed is paramount. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a few systematic criteria to lower the propensity of foodborne illness with these types of food products.7 Refrigerating the perishable quickly after purchasing is key (within 2 hours). This will prevent the item from developing any premature spoiling. It is also important to keep your refrigerator setting at a proper temperature (less than 40o F). Many pathogens grow in what is called “The Danger Zone”, a temperature range of 40-140o F. When handling produce and raw meats, use different cutting boards and utensils for handling each class of food separately. Cross-contamination is a very common route through which pathogens, originating from the handling of raw meat and poultry, make their way into raw produce and vegetables that are later consumed.8 Cooking meat and poultry to their proper internal temperatures are vital to ensuring that any pathogenic microbial organisms are destroyed in the cooking process.9 The recommendations for adequate internal temperatures for meat and poultry products can be found on the USDA’s website linked here. Rinsing vegetables, fruits, and other items from the produce section can decrease the number of microbiological residues present on those items.10

Foodborne illness and food safety are serious matters. Reducing the risk of foodborne illness for yourself and those in your household is encouraged by taking the steps discussed here and those promoted by governing bodies such as the FDA and USDA.



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