Increasing recalls for food contamination have scared many Americans. A noted expert discusses why contamination scares are becoming more common, what government and producers are doing to protect us, and what we can do in our own kitchens to make foods safer.
Dr. Mark Tamplin, former food safety adviser, World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and author, Phage
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Enhancing Food Safety
Nancy Benson: Last month, the government announced a huge recall of more than 350 frozen fruits and vegetables sold under 42 different brands… Foods like green beans, peas, broccoli and blueberries. Contamination with listeria bacteria was the reason… And some experts aren’t surprised.
Dr. Mark Tamplin: The food supply, such as the case of listeria, is quite vulnerable particularly for ready-to-eat foods. Listeria is a bacteria that lives in soils, it lives in water, so it’s always out there. It’s in fact, we typically eat it whenever we eat some fresh produce, but at low levels it doesn’t cause a problem.
Benson: However, in higher concentrations, listeria can be a killer, according to Dr. Mark Tamplin, author of the new book, Phage, and former food safety adviser to both the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, he says listeria can kill 20 percent of the people who are sickened with it. Listeria was responsible for the biggest outbreak of foodborne illness in American history in 2011 when contaminated cantaloupe killed 33 people. It affected caramel apples in 2014 and ice cream products in 2015. And Tamplin says outbreaks are increasing as processors get bigger and bigger.
Tamplin: Where we’ve seen the greatest increase in total foodborne illnesses and outbreaks have been in the category of the ready-to-eat produce. And the largest outbreaks we’ve seen have originated from products that have come from big producers like you’d expect in California and again as a side effect to our food supply chain and how it’s changing, is we have consolidation, we have large corporations producing huge quantities of product and when something goes wrong, we see a lot of people get infected and some die.
Benson: As you might surmise looking at the wide variety of foods contaminated by listeria, the problem isn’t on the farm. It’s in the processing plant. That’s because listeria thrives in cold temperatures that prevent other pathogens from growing.
Tamplin: This organism likes cold environments, so we keep our processing plants cold, but this organism listeria is such a persistent problem, they set up home in things like the drains in the floor. They like to grow in the cracks of the conveyer belts in places where it’s difficult to clean and sanitize. And in fact, we know some of the big product recalls with products such as sandwich meats, those things that we don’t typically cook, have been related to when they’re spraying the room down at the end of the day, those aerosols, you know, the drain and the water goes up, and it contaminates surfaces and can contaminate the food product. So listeria by far is the biggest challenge that the food industry faces.
Benson: Now you might wonder… Isn’t the government supposed to do inspections to prevent those kinds of outbreaks? Tamplin says yes, and the government generally does a pretty good job. But he says testing can never be the best safety valve.
Tamplin: The ability to detect the pathogen in a lot of product is very low. So what we do in industry is we use a process, a food safety system, called Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points or HACCP and that simply means that we monitor critical control points in the processing and through monitoring those, that could be things like sanitizing, properly heating things and cooking things. If we do those things right, we know that the odds of a pathogen persisting in the food are quite low. Where we have the biggest gap right now and where government and industry both need to be working better is before the processing plant. For things like vegetables, we’re relying upon industry using what are called voluntarily HACCP programs and while we’re seeing this increase in foodborne illness, in these types of ready-to-eat vegetable products, the industry does not come under the same level of regulation, mandatory regulation and enforcement, as we see with the food processors.
Benson: That means there’s less regulation for foods that aren’t frozen or cooked before we eat them, like our fresh lettuce and carrots.
Tamplin: We’ve also seen outbreaks associated with produce that are believed to be linked to soil; the dust from, say, a poultry farm that’s nearby, or a cattle farm where these pathogens live in high concentrations. The dust and the water can get over onto a produce farm and once it’s on the produce, these pathogens bind quite tightly to the produce and we know that rinsing does not remove all of the bacteria. In fact, it removes just a small percentage. So we have to trust that everything has been done well before we bring those products into our homes. Certainly it removes the dirt, the grit, the filth that we don’t want to consume. Many of those products that are in bags says on the label that they’ve been tripled washed in some cases. But I always think it’s important for consumers to have a greater role in food safety. And by that I mean to rinse it one more time before they consume it.
Benson: For some other foods, a lot more caution in the kitchen is required.
Tamplin: A quite high percentage of poultry, somewhere around 40 to 60 percent that we bring into our kitchen in a raw form, can contain salmonella and another organism that’s called Campylobacter and not many people have heard of that one, but it’s the leading cause of bacterial foodborne illness in the United States.
Benson: However, Tamplin says the number one overall cause of foodborne illness dwarfs bacterial causes. It’s a virus called norovirus… And when it makes us sick, we usually have only ourselves to blame.
Tamplin: Norovirus is believed to be responsible for about 60 percent of all the foodborne illnesses that occur in the United States. Now that’s 60 percent of 50 million foodborne infections that happen in the United States every year. In the case of norovirus though, we know it only comes from one animal and that’s a human. It only lives in a human gut. So anytime anyone gets sick and again that’s 60 percent of all the infections, we know it’s someone who went to the bathroom, did not wash their hands and then handled a ready-to-eat food meaning a food that you’re not going to cook before you consume it.
Benson: That means that despite government inspections and precautions of the food industry, the biggest factor in whether we ever get a foodborne illness is how we handle food ourselves once we get it home.
Tamplin: Never keep a food in that danger zone, a food that allows bacteria to grow in the danger zone, which is between 40 and 140 degrees. So those are typically things like meat, moist kind of products. If we don’t keep it in that range for more than four hours, the pathogens don’t have a chance to grow. The other thing we need to do is consumers is if they cook their product to the right temperature, then they’ll kill off all the bad organisms. But one of the biggest things that we forget to do in our homes is properly cleaning and sanitizing. And cross contamination can occur in, for example, a typical scenario is someone thaws chicken out in the sink, they don’t clean and sanitize the sink then they fill up the sink with water, they put in their lettuce, and then they serve a salad and get everyone in the family and their friends sick. Those real simple things — cooking properly, not keeping things in the danger zone more than four hours, good hand washing, cleaning and sanitizing can almost eliminate the possibility of getting serious infections.
Benson: You can find out more about all our guests through links on our website, radiohealthjournal.net. You can find archives of our segments there, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher.
Our production director is Sean Waldron.
I’m Nancy Benson.