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A Time to Buy Local: Food Safety Concerns Rise in Processed Foods

April 20, 2009

Food Safety Efforts Have Stalled in Recent Years, CDC Says

By Lyndsey LaytonWashington Post Staff Writer 

Published by The Washington Post on Friday, April 10, 2009; Page A03 

Schematic diagram of the life cycle of Escherichia coli. Stewart EJ, Madden R, Paul G, Taddei F (2005). "Aging and death in an organism that reproduces by morphologically symmetric division". PLoS Biol 3 (2): e45. DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030045. PMID 15685293.

Schematic diagram of the life cycle of Escherichia coli. Stewart EJ, Madden R, Paul G, Taddei F (2005). "Aging and death in an organism that reproduces by morphologically symmetric division". PLoS Biol 3 (2): e45. DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030045. PMID 15685293.

Efforts to reduce the number of food-borne illnesses in the United States have stalled in the past three years, and some illnesses are on the upswing, giving new urgency to efforts to reform the nation’s food safety system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported yesterday. 

“We need greater effort at all stages of movement of food in the food chain from farm to table” to prevent bacterial contamination, said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases.Several factors are fueling the trend, including the intricacy of the U.S. food chain, the changing nature of the contaminating bacteria and the rise in imported food, Tauxe said. Bacteria that used to be associated mainly with meats and poultry have recently shown up in fresh produce, posing new risks, he said. Examples include E. coli 0157 in spinach and salmonella in peanuts and pistachios.

“It reflects the complexity of the problem, with many different foods becoming potentially contaminated, including more fresh produce. It reflects that fact that pathogens like E. coli 0157 and salmonella can spread in the environment and contaminate a number of different foods, some of which we have not seen in the past,” Tauxe said. “And the food industry is also complicated and changing, with a variety of different arenas and components from all over the world.”

Children younger than 4 are particularly vulnerable to food-borne bacteria, while adults older than 50 are the most likely to be hospitalized and die from bacterial exposure, the study found. Children can become infected simply by sitting in a shopping cart next to raw meat or, in non-food-related cases, from living with pet turtles or reptiles or from attending day-care facilities where other children or care providers have not adequately washed their hands after using the bathroom, Tauxe said.

The bacteria in question are generally found in the intestines and feces of animals. When consumed in food by humans, they can cause diarrhea and cramps. Most healthy adults recover within days, but the bacteria can cause serious and sometimes deadly illness in children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

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