Current Food Safety Issues

Objectives

To provide information on:

  • Current food safety issues
  • Reasons for increased incidents of foodborne illness

Introduction

Each year in the United States alone, it is estimated that more than 33 million people become ill as a direct result of foodborne illness. More than 9,000 people die. The cost in lost wages, insurance claims and medical bills amounts to between $7.7 and $23 billion a year. Recently, food safety issues have gained national attention. They have been the subject of numerous articles in the media, including themes for TV sitcoms.

Family and Consumer Sciences labs and classes provide a unique forum for students to develop an understanding of food safety principles and their application.

Current Food Safety Issues 

According to Dr. Jane Collins, who spoke at the March 1997 “Emerging Foodborne Pathogens Implication and Control” conference in Alexandra, Virginia, the most serious food safety problem in the United States is foodborne illness of microbial origin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports (1996) that 79% of the outbreaks between 1987 and 1992 were a direct result of microbial contamination. This opinion is also shared by scientists and regulatory officials. The medical community and the food industry is becoming increasingly concerned because some microbes have demonstrated resistance to methods of food preparation and storage, and to antibiotics. However, consumers rarely consider their own food safety practices as a hazard. They continue to view the use and misuse of agricultural chemicals, pesticides and animal drugs as the major concern (Jones, 1992). The results of a 1996 American Meat Institute study (see Teacher Information Sheet #5) indicated that Americans appear to be more interested in convenience and saving time than in proper food handling and preparation (Collins, 1997).

The level of consumer interest about any food safety issue is directly related to the level of attention the issue is given by print and voice media (Jones, 1992). A survey conducted in April, 1997 by Creswell, Munsell, Fultz & Zirbel-Public Relations Company (CMF&Z), suggests the level of concern about a food safety issue is driven largely by food safety scares. For the past four years, CMF&Z has conducted a nationwide random sample survey of 150 consumers and 150 newspaper editors who cover food and food safety issues. The 1997 survey was cosponsored by the Industry Council on Food Safety, the restaurant and foodservice industry coalition.

The CMF&Z Industry council survey showed 79 percent of consumers had recently seen or heard media accounts of food safety issues including stories related to tainted strawberries, E-Coli:015H7 bacteria, salmonella, food handling/preparation and others. While 32 percent of consumers believe less than one-half of media stories on food safety issues, more than three-fourths of the consumers surveyed said they would take action in response to negative stories concerning safe drinking water, bacteria in food and food preparation (CMF&Z Public Relations, September, 1997)

An example of action taken by consumers in direct response to the E-Coli:015H7 outbreak in the state of Washington in January of 1993 and succeeding outbreaks was the formation of an organization called S.T.O.P.-Safe Tables Our Priority. The membership is comprised of families whose children became seriously ill and or died from consuming foods contaminated with E-Coli:015H7 bacteria. This activist consumer group’s goal is to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Their members are now invited to participate in policy making meetings of federal agencies with responsibility for protecting the food supply. Media attention and pressure from consumer activist groups such as S.T.O.P. have influenced federal and state regulatory agencies to issue emergency regulations.

Reasons for Increased Incidents of Foodborne Illness

  • Better methods of detection and identification
    • Advances in science and technology allow for better methods of detection and identification of foodborne illness and the pathogen that may be causing the illness.
    • Previously “unknown” causes of foodborne illness have been identified.¬†
  • Microorganisms are developing resistance to antibiotics.
    • They are adapting to changes in their environment which threaten their survival.
  • Change in consumer demographics
    • Changing family structure including an increasing number of two paycheck families, women in the workforce and a greater number of single heads of households.
    • Increasing numbers of persons who are immunosuppressed which includes people who are HIV positive, undergoing chemotherapy or organ transplants and those individuals with long term chronic illnesses.
    • The elderly are an increasing percentage of the population. (l5.12% of the U.S. population according to the 1990 U.S. Census)
  • Change in Consumer Lifestyles
    • Desire for foods that have a fresh taste and are minimally packaged and processed.
    • Increasing number of labor-saving food preparation equipment, i.e., food processors, microwave ovens.
    • Lack of knowledge of basic food safety principles
    • Limited commitment to food preparation activities in the home.
    • More interested in convenience and saving time than proper food handling and preparation (Collins, 1997)
    • More than one third of meals are eaten away from home.
  • Changes in the Food System-Farm to Table.
    • A global food economy and rapid transportation system have evolved to satisfy consumer demand for a wide variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
    • Consolidation of small animal slaughtering/processing operations into large, efficient centrally located operations.
    • The food processing industry, in response to consumer demand, has developed new processing techniques, unique packaging concepts and new distribution strategies which can create new food safety risks.
    • The lines between food processors, retail grocers and food service operators have begun to fade. For example, supermarkets may offer a variety of ready to eat foods for consumption at home.

 

References: Creswell, Munsel, Fultz & Zirbel-Public Relations Company, Des Moines,
Iowa 515-246-3500