By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
April 25, 2005
But food safety experts say the war against food pathogens is far from over. As science and industry make progress in fighting pathogens on one front, new problems and pathogens crop up elsewhere.
Within the last year, the United States saw the biggest outbreak of Hepatitis A, a disease once thought confined to poor countries with inadequate sanitation. Some 540 people in Pennsylvania were infected and three died after eating green onions. Meanwhile, outbreaks of the Norwalk virus beached some luxury cruises and a dangerous strain of E. coli showed up at a Florida petting zoo.
Food scientists say these examples show it's hardly the time for cooks to relax safe handling procedures for raw meats and vegetables as the warmer weather signals the beginning of the peak season for food poisoning.
"We like to think that we're winning the battle to maintain control, but we have to realize that we live in a biological ecosystem where we are constantly changing and where on a microscopic level things are changing, too," said Trent Wakenight, a food safety expert with Michigan State University's National Food Safety and Toxicology Center.
Wakenight said recent reports of declining incidences of contamination with dangerous pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 is welcome news, but shouldn't be taken by consumers as an indication of a victory over all food-borne disease.
"We've still got 76 million incidences of food-borne illnesses a year in this country," said Wakenight. "There is still a lot to do."
The Institute of Food Technologists, which represents 26,000 food scientists in academia and the government, says it's impossible to create a risk-free food supply. Microbes evolve and supermarkets today draw produce from around the world, including countries that have rudimentary sanitation.
Many pathogens like the dangerous E. coli O157:H7 strain and Campylobacter were identified as food-borne pathogens only in the last two decades. Scientists say 81 percent of the bacteria and viruses causing illnesses today aren't identified.
The organization says the battle against pathogens has to be taken into home kitchens where most food contamination occurs today.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month reported there has been progress combating some pathogens.
Contamination by the dangerous E. coli strain from 1996 to 2004 declined 42 percent, while in the same period Listeria contamination was down 40 percent and Salmonella decreased 8 percent. The CDC reported that over the same period, contamination by Vibrio pathogens increased 47 percent.
E. coli O157:H7 is one of thousands of strains of E. coli that develop in the gut of animals and gained national attention in 1993 following an outbreak at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant. While other strains are harmless, contamination by E. coli O157:H7 in children can cause lethal kidney disease. Contamination has been linked frequently to eating undercooked hamburgers, but the CDC said 21 percent of the outbreaks of the strain have been traced to produce, including vegetables washed in contaminated water or grown close to the soil.
Listeria is a pathogen that is found in prepared meats and cheeses, while Salmonella is mainly found in poultry and eggs. Vibrio is a pathogen that develops in raw oysters and shellfish.
The most common food bacteria are Salmonella and Campylobacter, found in a variety of raw products. Both cause stomach aches and diarrhea, but some outbreaks of Campylobacter have been linked to later development of arthritis and the acute paralysis called Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Food poisoning results in 5,000 admissions to hospitals each year and can be lethal to young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the problem with food pathogens could be reduced if cooks prepared meats to temperatures greater than 160 degrees Fahrenheit, thoroughly washed vegetables and avoided cross-contamination.
But thermometers are sometimes forgotten in backyard cooking or on summer picnics, even though summertime is the peak season for contamination with food-borne pathogens because bacteria multiply faster in warm weather than in cold temperatures.
"The job is never done," said Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety, a non-profit established by the federal government and private industry, which runs the Web site www.fightbac.org.
Feist's organization this year is launching a "Project Chill" campaign to persuade Americans to put thermometers in kitchen refrigerators to keep food below 40 degrees to combat Listeria. NSF International, a company that certifies food industry safety systems, is promoting the "Scrub Club" program, aimed at persuading children of the importance of scrubbing their hands.
Feist said consumer campaigns are making cooks aware of the dangers of cross-contamination and the importance of using thermometers in cooking.
"But there's a gap between awareness and practice," she said. "There's not always perfect attention to the message."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com