World Food Safety Day: Remembering Those Microbes!

World Food Safety Day: Remembering Those Microbes!

World Food Safety Day is today (June 7th), and IFIC celebrates each year by considering how our food-supply chain can improve its safety—a critical part of our everyday nutrition and wellness. Supporting safe food manufacturing and processing is a core value of supporting mankind’s nourishment—even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, when virus-related roadblocks have impacted the food industry workforce, facility operations, and grocery-store inventories all over the country. Ensuring food safety in the U.S. is a tall order, but individual actions count—so what concerns should we prioritize this year?

The U.S. has one of the safest food systems in the world, and IFIC’s 2022 Food and Health Survey uncovered that for the past five years, a majority (68%) of people have felt confident in the safety of our food supply. However, this number is down from where it was in 2012, when 78% of consumers were confident in the supply’s safety. The 2022 survey also uncovered that among the most important food-safety issues cited for consumers is foodborne illness from bacteria. Since we’ve seen this issue remain consistent, let’s highlight some common foodborne illness–causing microbes, as well as ways to handle food properly in case of a recall and, finally, what to do if you suspect you have a foodborne illness.

Nasty Little Buggers

Although researchers have identified more than 250 types of foodborne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the top five bacteria that cause foodborne illness in the United States are Norovirus, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus (Staph). The CDC also estimates that, annually in the U.S., 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Beyond the U.S., foodborne illness from bacteria is a serious public health issue that impacts people globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 600 million people fall ill after consuming contaminated food and beverages every year.

Although you may not catch some of these microbes frequently making news headlines, according to the CDC, Norovirus is the leading cause of disease outbreaks from contaminated food in the U.S. Leafy greens, fresh fruits, and shellfish are foods that are often involved in these outbreaks. As for Clostridium perfringens, this microbe is commonly found in meat- and poultry-containing dishes and gravies that are prepared in large quantities and kept warm or at room temperature for long periods of time. Campylobacter can be found in some of the same places as Norovirus and Clostridium. It is linked to raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, contaminated water, and fresh produce.

Contrary to popular belief, Salmonella is not the leader in causing foodborne illness; however, it is likely to be a microbe you’ve heard of more often, and it has been linked to many notable and newsworthy food contaminations. Infections from this microbe have been linked to a wide variety of foods, including vegetables, chicken, pork, fruits, nuts (and nut butters), eggs, beef, and sprouts.

Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) is a bit different from all these other bacteria in that it originates from people who come into contact with food (not the other way around). Staph can be found on the skin or in the nose; if infected skin or nose particulates come into contact with food, the resultant contamination leads to a kind of bacterial toxin production that can cause illness. Staph bacteria can be killed by thorough cooking, but the toxins they produce are not destroyed by cooking and may still cause illness.

Mitigating Microbe Exposure

Food producers, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) work together regularly to keep our foods safe. However, consumers should take proper precautions as well. To minimize bacterial contamination pitfalls in our kitchens, it’s important for consumers to practice fundamental food-safety practices like the concepts of “clean, cook, separate and chill.” But there are more ways we can help keep ourselves and our food safe, and they primarily involve paying attention and taking action when it comes to food-safety risks as you purchase food and prepare it in your home:

  • Read the labels. Foods are at their best quality according to their “best by/use by labels,” and these can serve as a good reference for their best taste and safety. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Ask USDA” tool can also help guide your decision-making when it comes to knowing if a food is still safe to consume.
  • Note signs of spoilage in the produce, fresh meats, and dairy items you keep in the fridge as well as in the packaged items in your pantry. Be on the lookout for spoilage characteristics such as if a food’s texture is different than usual, if it is discolored, if it has an unpleasant odor, if it feels slimy, or if it has visible mold.
  • Look up and note any food recalls that may have affected the foods you eat regularly—sometimes, food contaminated with some bacteria, such as the toxin from Staph, may not smell bad or look spoiled. Recalls are often initiated by the contaminated food’s manufacturer or distributor, but they may also be mandated by a government agency, such as the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) or the FDA. When a contamination is discovered, the producer must remove the affected products from the marketplace and prevent the problem from spreading. If you have a food that has been recalled, wait—don’t eat it, share it, donate it, or feed it to your pet. Next, food-safety experts recommend checking out why the product was recalled to assist in your decision-making about whether and how to discard it. For example, if the product is recalled for mislabeled allergens, and you don’t have any food allergies, you don’t need to worry about that recall. However, if contamination is the recall reason, try returning your product to the store where you bought it—many grocery stores will offer a refund for recalled foods. Or, more simply, throw it away. To give you more peace of mind, the FDA has a handy website where you can both track and sign up to receive food recall alerts.
  • Remember the phrase “when in doubt, throw it out”—it is better to get rid of something than risk a potential foodborne illness by eating it.

Finally, you can work to avoid foodborne illness by knowing and paying attention to symptoms of foodborne illness. First-alert symptoms include stomach pains and/or nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If you suspect you have gotten sick from something you ate, you should contact your health care provider immediately, and if you are unable to keep any food or drink down, including water, you should go to the emergency room.

By regularly reviewing and practicing these tips and refreshers on food safety, you can make them second nature and avoid contracting a foodborne illness. As we celebrate World Food Safety Day this year, we hope you are enjoying some wonderful summer foods—and staying safe while doing so!