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Foodborne Illness

A Constant Challenge

In a perfect world, foodborne illness would not exist. But according to public health officials, the likelihood of this happening is remote. In 1994, the non-profit Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) published a report titled, "Foodborne Pathogens: Risks and Consequences," that said that zero risk of microbiological hazards is not possible and no one method will eliminate all pathogens or toxins from the food chain.

Why? Despite progress improving the quality and safety of foods, the CAST report explained that any raw agricultural product can be contaminated. Bacteria may survive despite aggressive controls at the processing level, or the food may become contaminated during preparation, cooking, serving and storage.

Further, the CAST report stressed what food safety and public health officials have all recognized: everyone in the food system, from producers to preparers, must be vigilant in controlling microbiological hazards. Accordingly, food safety experts are stepping up calls for education about safe food handling because of the following factors that make controlling foodborne pathogens particularly challenging:


  • Consumers do not always take time to wash hands and utensils or thaw meats properly.
  • Emerging pathogens demand even greater food safety vigilance than what was required in previous generations.
  • The food supply has become global with many different countries supplying food products to the U.S.
  • More food is prepared and consumed away from home. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that consumers spend 43 cents of every food dollar eating out. Also, an increasing amount of food prepared away from the home is then taken home for consumption, thus creating new opportunities for mishandling.
Adding to the challenge, microorganisms continue to adapt and evolve, often increasing their degree of virulence. For example, in 1990, the U.S. Public Health Service identified E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter jejuni as the four most serious foodborne pathogens in the U.S. because of the severity and estimated number of illnesses they cause. Of these, Campylobacter, Listeria and E. coli O157:H7 were unrecognized as sources of foodborne disease 20 years ago.

At the same time, bacteria already recognized as sources of foodborne illness have found new modes of transmission. While many illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 occur from eating undercooked ground beef, these bacteria have also been traced to other foods, such as salami, raw milk, lettuce and unpasteurized apple cider. Salmonella Enteritidis, which once only contaminated the outside of egg shells, is now found inside many eggs, making uncooked eggs no longer safe to eat.

For these reasons, food safety and public health officials agree that along with aggressive efforts to identify, assess and control microbiological hazards associated with each segment of the food production system, an intensified focus on education about safe food handling must become a national priority. Consumers, as the last stop in the farm-to-table continuum, have an important role to play in protecting themselves.


If you have questions or concerns about food safety, contact:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline at (800) 535-4555 or (202) 720-3333 (Washington, DC area). The TTY number for the hearing impaired is (800) 256-7072.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Information Line at (888) SAFE FOOD.

Reprinted with permission from
The Fight BAC! Web site at: www.fightbac.org

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