Foodborne Illnesses and Food Safety

Workers at TexStarr in Pharr, TX utilize the utmost in modern food safety repacking Mexican limes for distribution in the U.S.
Image courtesy Chip Carter

In our day-to-day lives, most of us do not question the safety of our food. It’s an unsettling thought that something we count on being wholesome and healthy can make us sick or even kill us. But foodborne illnesses can make even the healthiest produce, eggs, and meat lethal. So just how safe is our food supply?

What the News Headlines Tell Us About Food Safety

When there are outbreaks of foodborne illness, they instantly grab headlines and the attention of consumers everywhere. In summer 2011, a Listeriosis outbreak traced back to cantaloupe from a Colorado farm killed 30 people and sickened dozens more. In April 2012, 425 Americans contracted Salmonella from what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called a “raw scraped ground tuna product” commonly used in sushi. The toxic scene in a now-defunct peanut packinghouse in Baxley, Georgia that was the source of the massive Salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened 691 others across 46 states in 2008-2009 was a flashpoint for a concerted food safety focus in the produce industry.

Those headlines are just the tip of the iceberg. A quick visit to the CDC website for a full report might even scare you into a liquid diet. But how often do people actually get sick from food?

The Real Food Safety and Foodborne Illness Statistics

The CDC estimates that approximately 1 one in 6 Americans get sick from something they eat each year. Of those people, around 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. While those statistics are nothing short of horrifying for most, let’s put them into perspective.

Every day, roughly 1 billion meals are served in America, which adds up to 400 billion in a year. Based on the CDC's foodborne illness estimates, only one of every 133,333,333 meals you eat is likely to kill you. That's a rate of .0000000075 percent. You’re twice as likely to win the lottery. According to the National Weather Service, your odds of being killed by a lightning strike in any given year are 1 in 775,000. While the odds when it comes to your foodborne illness risk are certainly in your favor, the fact that there is a risk at all still serves as a call to action for the food industry.

Dr. Bob Whitaker, chief science officer of the Washington, DC-based Produce Marketing Association (PMA), an international trade organization representing farmers and food shippers, and chairman of the Research and Technology Council of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis agrees. “If you’re the one who gets sick, you really don’t care about the other 100 million people who didn’t. We [in the industry] want to always be cognizant of that. One person getting sick is too many and that’s why we continue to strive to do better every day.”

The Organizations Involved in Food Safety 

“I think our food supply is safe,” says Dr. Whitaker. “If you look at the numbers of people we’re feeding every day with foods of all kinds, meat and dairy and poultry and produce, I think we have a safe food supply. We have available today better technology than we’ve ever had before.” But it's not just new technology driving continued improvements in food safety, it's also the work of regulatory agencies, the U.S. government, and the food industries themselves.

For instance, the meat industry was forced by Congress to clean up its act in the 1990s in the wake of Britain’s outbreak of bovine encephalitis (mad cow disease) in the late 1980s. U.S. producers of pork, beef, poultry, and other meats continually are given — and usually meet — increasingly high standards from U.S. regulatory agencies.

The fresh produce industry, on the other hand, is to a large degree self-regulating. While there are ample government safeguards in place — and more coming via food safety legislation Congress has been kicking down the road for the past couple of years — after watching the meat industry fight its way through endless ribbons of bureaucratic red tape, produce providers saw the light and took the initiative to provide safer products.

In addition to food safety regulations, consumers have a hand in ensuring continual improvements. For instance, most wholesalers, retailers, and food service providers (like restaurants, hospitals, schools, etc.) require a product from farms and packinghouses to be inspected and certified not only by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but also by independent, third-party auditors, like Primus Labs.

New Food Safety Initiatives and Technology

With PMA taking the lead, the industry in 2008 voluntarily adopted the Produce Traceability Initiative, which is a series of milestones that aims to make all produce sold in American markets or used in food service traceable down to the row in which it was grown. While improvements in overall food safety are (and arguably always will be) the primary aim, improving practices like traceability will continue to be important because no matter how diligent the industry is, accidents will still happen. By being able to immediately pinpoint the source of a problem, its spread can be prevented and its negative impact limited.

How Safe Is Our Food?

“Above all, the people who grow and produce these products are consumers themselves,” Dr. Whitaker says. “It’s food. Sometimes you can lose sight of that. It’s important to constantly remind ourselves and constantly be vigilant. I think the industry has really elevated food safety to a point of importance that is laser-focused. We can’t ever eliminate foodborne illnesses, but I do think we can limit their severity.”

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