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grocery_bagHazardous to your health?

Reports of foodborne disease outbreaks and food product recalls have captured a lot of media attention in the past several months. As a result, many people are wondering if the food they are eating is safe– or . . .


According to SPEA professor and food safety expert David McSwane, in spite of recent events, we must not lose sight of the fact that America has one of the safest food supplies in the world. Still, foodborne disease outbreaks and product recalls do illustrate the vulnerability of our global food system. The U.S. trades with over 150 countries and territories and approximately 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported. In addition, approximately 60 percent of the fresh produce and 75 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. These imported foods, as well as those produced domestically, can become contaminated with an array of biological, chemical, and physical hazards as they flow from the farm to your table.

Some of the more recent and notable food safety episodes include:

Salmonella in Peanut Butter – There have been two major foodborne disease outbreaks and product recalls linked to peanut butter in the past few years. The first outbreak involved consumer-sized jars of Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butter that were manufactured by a ConAgra Foods company plant in Georgia. During this outbreak, 628 people in 47 states became infected with Salmonella Tennessee. The second outbreak is currently ongoing and involves peanut butter and peanut paste contaminated with Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria. To date, 491 persons in 43 states have become ill from eating products contaminated with the peanut butter or peanut paste produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). These products are sold in bulk containers ranging in size from a few pounds to several hundred pounds. The peanut butter is distributed in many states to establishments such as long-term care facilities, hospitals, schools, universities, restaurants, delis, cafeterias, and bakeries. It is not sold directly to consumers and is not known to be distributed for retail sale in grocery stores. The peanut butter and peanut paste is also commonly used as an ingredient in many products, including cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream, pet treats, and other foods. To date, PCA has recalled more than 31 million pounds of peanut butter and peanut paste. The Food and Drug Administration is advising Americans to avoid eating cookies, crackers, candy and ice cream that contain peanut butter or peanut paste while the agency works to establish which products are tainted with the salmonella bacteria.

China’s Tainted Milk Scandal – At least six young Chinese children died from kidney stones and nearly 300,000 others experienced some form of kidney disease or urinary tract problems as a result of consuming infant formula contaminated with the organic chemical melamine. Melamine is used in plastics, adhesives, and dishware. In China, where the adulteration occurred, farmers added water to raw milk to increase its volume. As a result of this dilution the milk had a lower protein concentration. Companies using the milk to make products such as infant formula normally check the protein level through a test measuring the nitrogen content. The melamine was deliberately added to the milk to artificially bump up apparent protein levels. Melamine has also been found in candy, coffee, tea, and pet food from China, sparking recalls and bans on certain products. The tainted milk scandal was unique because the product was intentionally adulterated with melamine with profit as a motive.

Westland/Hallmark Ground Meat Recall Due to Downer Cows – This episode is not technically a food safety issue because no contaminated meat or illnesses were documented. Nonetheless, this event attracted a great deal of media attention and resulted in the recall of 143 million pounds of beef, which is the largest meat recall in American history. An undercover video made by the Humane Society revealed that the Westland/Hallmark meat company was slaughtering and selling meat from “downer cows” – animals too sick to walk to slaughter. This practice is strictly prohibited as meat from diseased animals could be unsafe to eat. As a result of this case, it will no longer be enough for a meat producer or processor to say they are doing the right thing; it will have to be able to prove it (using techniques like video surveillance). It is expected that proof of actions will become increasingly demanded and adopted over the next year by food processors.

• Salmonella Saintpaul in Jalapeño and Serrano Peppers Grown in Mexico – A total of 1,442 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada were infected with Salmonella Saintpaul bacteria last year. Three things make this case unique among foodborne disease outbreaks. First, Salmonella Saintpaul bacteria are a rare cause of foodborne illness. Second, the outbreak involved fresh produce – which is becoming a very common vehicle of foodborne illness. Third, the outbreak was originally believed to be linked to red Roma and plum tomatoes and not green peppers. This case shows the challenges that are posed by our global food safety system and the importance of being able to trace fresh produce to its source. There’s a lot of talk of increasing traceability so that companies and food safety regulatory agencies can trace food products to their origin. Companies that can provide efficient traceability systems for their products provide an advantage to the retail food industry during recalls and outbreaks

In a perfect world, no one would get sick, least of all from eating food. Unfortunately, zero risk of microbiological hazards is not possible and no one method will eliminate all disease-causing agents from the food chain. Despite progress made toward improving the quality and safety of foods, any raw agricultural product can be contaminated. Bacteria may survive despite aggressive controls at the processing level, or the food may become contaminated somewhere along the way during preparation, cooking, serving, and storage. Everyone in the food system, from producers to preparers, must be vigilant in controlling microbiological hazards and safe food handling must be a priority. Consumers, as the last stop in the farm-to-table continuum, have an important role to play in reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Whether you’re cooking for a party or simply a family dinner, it’s important to keep food safety on the menu at all times. (See "Practical Wisdom" for tips on reducing the risk of foodborne illness.)

David McSwane (H.S.D., Indiana University) is a professor and interim associate dean at SPEA Indianapolis. His specialties are environmental health policy, public health, and food safety.