Since 1994, September has been National Food Safety Month in the United States. Each year, September is used as a time to increase awareness and provide training in hopes of reducing the number of people made sick by foodborne pathogens.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne pathogens lead to 48 million cases of sickness, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths per year in the United States. Two to three percent of those cases of sickness lead to long-term health complications, such as reactive arthritis, meningitis, kidney failure, or Guillain-Barre syndrome.
In 2015 alone, there were 897 confirmed outbreaks of foodborne illness throughout the United States, and 2016 has already seen a variety of highly publicized events with three months left on the calendar. A Hepatitis A outbreak connected to raw scallops in Hawaii sickened 276 individuals this summer, while food giant General Mills has spent much of the year recalling flour products to fight an E. coli outbreak that's affected at least 21 states.
So why is foodborne illness still so prevalent in 2016, in spite of incredible advances in technology and medicine?
The answer is complex.
Over the last half century, technology and globalization have made it easier for people to travel, trade, and explore new cultures than ever before. Unfortunately, we've also extended that offer to foodborne pathogens, and they've been excited to explore the world too.
The ability to transport food around the country or globe with relative ease is impressive and exciting, but as the supply chain has lengthened over the last 50 years, it's created more control points at which new pathogens can be introduced to food items or where pathogens already lurking within the food can reproduce.
It doesn't take any complex processes for these adulterations to occur: a temperature excursion caused by a faulty refrigeration system in a truck, a packer or inspector who didn't properly wash their hands, or a storage facility in which raw products and cooked products are stored too closely together are just a few examples of situations that could lead to sickening food.
The modern supply chain has also inadvertently accelerated the rate at which pathogens evolve and become more dangerous. Just as introducing a seemingly harmless foreign frog to a forest can prove disastrous for the ecosystem, shipping previously-localized populations of bacteria around the world can result in increased sickness and new adaptations by the pathogen.
E. coli O157:H7, for example, has beefed up substantially over the last 35 years, which closely mirrors the timeframe during which long-term, large-scale shipping has become the default. In 1982, when E. coli O157:H7 was first identified, it produced hemorrhagic diarrhea and other "food poisoning" symptoms, but now the strain is far more damaging to victims' kidneys and also antibiotic resistant.
Moving forward, the question has become how can human ambition and modern technology help solve the problem they both contributed to?
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland are currently developing computer technology to help food safety inspectors and public health officials detect potentially dangerous strains of bacteria. This software is taught the DNA signature of strains that have been connected with outbreaks of illness in humans and identifies the corresponding animal strains. Livestock can then be tested and vaccinated accordingly.
As of now, the technology has only been tested using E. coli, but the results are promising.
Even with better pathogen detection and prediction technologies in development, well-developed, judiciously executed HACCP plans are still the best way to protect consumers and prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.
HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, a system which requires food production facilities from farms to processing plants to create contamination prevention plans. These plans identify the key points during the food production process at which adulteration is likely to occur and strategies to prevent contamination from occurring.
HACCP plan development is currently voluntary for food service and retail businesses like supermarkets, but given the increased awareness of foodborne illness and desire for protection from consumers, the Food and Drug Administration may move towards extending HACCP requirements all the way down the supply chain.
The backbone of any good HACCP plan is reliable precision monitoring. Temperatures, humidity levels, and exposure times to certain conditions must be carefully tracked and recorded to ensure that food is safe and to prove such to FDA regulators.
MadgeTech, the New Hampshire data logger company, is proud to manufacture temperature and humidity data loggers that monitor food products throughout production, transportation and storage and provide documentation to demonstrate regulatory compliance.
To make MadgeTech food data loggers part of your food safety plan, contact MadgeTech's certified HACCP Manager today!
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