Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More on Food Safety

The Luxury of Food Safety
One of the many luxuries Americans enjoy is access to the safest and most abundant food supply in the world. This stems from many advances and improvements in food safety, sanitation, and crop production that reduce the chance of food-safety problems, including food-borne illness, pesticide contamination, or infectious disease. There are many reasons why food safety has become an issue. First, medical advances have made it possible for people to live longer, creating an aging population more susceptible to disease. Second, labor in the food industry is more diverse and less skilled. Learning barriers, personnel turnover, and limited food-preparation skills create challenges in training. Third, the U.S. food supply has expanded globally, and many types of food come from areas where food safety standards are less stringent than those in the United States. Other concerns for food safety stem from terrorist threats, food irradiation, and genetically modified foods.

Concerns exist about the use of radioactivity in food irradiation, the presence of possible subsequent toxicity, and the development of more virulent bacteria. These concerns, however, are unfounded and the benefits outweigh the risks. Evidence from over four decades of research in the United States shows the benefits to include a decrease in food-borne pathogens, an increase in the shelf life of some fruits and vegetables, and less fumigant use for controlling insect pests.
Control and Oversight

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that injury, such as disease or illness, will not result from substances in food by closely monitoring the food supply. This differs from monitoring for food hazards (the responsibility of the food handler), where harm is possible under normal conditions. Potential food hazards could include improper storage conditions and serving food at unsafe temperatures. The food handler is directly involved in controlling these potential hazards during receiving, storage, preparation, cooking, and service.

The primary agencies that monitor the safety of the U.S. food supply are the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When monitoring the food supply, the FDA focuses first on microbial food-borne illness, followed by natural toxins in food, and residues in food, including environmental contaminants, pesticides, and animal drugs. Nutritional composition and intentional food additives are monitored more closely as artificial food products enter the market. The FDA Food Code, which is published every two years, provides guidance for restaurants, grocery stores, and institutions such as nursing homes on how to prevent food-borne illness. Managers and supervisors of these institutions are now required to be certified in food safety and sanitation. Local, state, and federal regulators use the Food Code as a model to develop their own food safety rules.
Food-Borne Illness

Each year, millions of people become ill from food-borne illness, the most common food safety-issue, although many cases are not reported. Food-borne illness is caused when toxic levels of pathogens or bacteria are present in food. Microbial food-borne illness, commonly called food poisoning, is monitored closely because the cases of food poisoning far outweigh any other type of food contamination. In the case of an infection from a pathogen such as Salmonella, contamination and food-borne illness results when a pathogen in a food product multiplies and infects the human body after ingestion. These microorganisms can multiply in food during agricultural production, transportation, preparation, and storage, or within the digestive tract after a person eats the contaminated food. Factors that contribute to food toxicity include the amount of the initial contamination, the time held in unsafe conditions, and the use of processes to inactivate or remove toxins and pathogens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most food-borne illness outbreaks occur from improper handling of food in the retail area of the food industry (e.g., schools, restaurants). Equally important is safe food-handling by consumers who purchase food and consume it at home, since most cases of food poisoning are a result of improper handling or cooking after purchase.

For many victims, food-borne illness results only in discomfort or lost time from the job. Those at higher risk—pre-school-age children, older adults in health care facilities, and those with impaired immune systems—food-borne illness is more serious and may be life threatening. Symptoms of food-borne illness vary, but can include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, headache, and in some cases difficulty speaking and swallowing. Some instances could result in paralysis or death. Fever fatigue and jaundice occur after several days in hepatitis cases.

To protect consumers from food-borne disease, efforts must focus on each point in the farm-to-table chain to better predict and prevent food-borne hazards, and to monitor and rapidly react to outbreaks of food-borne diseases. A food-service establishment should have an effective food-safety program to prevent hazards before they occur. For example, the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program is a proactive program initiated by the FDA to ensure food safety for the astronauts in the space program. The process starts by reviewing a food service's standard operating procedures to be sure that food hazards are controlled during receiving, storage, preparation, service, and cooling of foods for later use. An examination of sanitation, as well as food handlers' personal hygiene and work practices are important as well.
Pesticides and Biotechnology

The use of pesticides to control damage of food crops and enhance production has created a controversy related to potential hazards to consumers. While pesticides can be part of a safe food-protection program, they can be hazardous when handled or used inappropriately. High doses of pesticides applied to laboratory animals cause birth defects, sterility, tumors, organ damage, and central nervous system impairment. As with antibiotics, the targeted insects become resistant and can survive exposure, emerging with increased vigor to again attack the crop. The same effects arise from herbicides and fungicides used on crops. New labeling laws introduced by the FDA in October 2002 have caused some organic producers to drop the term organic from their label, finding the requirements too restrictive.

Genetically modified foods have been a cause of concern in many parts of the world since their introduction, particularly in Europe. Campaigns have been launched by many groups opposing the practice of genetically altering enzymes, amino acids, and genes in foods for the purposes of increasing crop yields, nutritional quality, and profits while decreasing food waste. Whether it is about changing the degree of saturation in oils or adding amino acids to corn to make it a more complete protein source, food technologists are working hard to change the chemical make-up of food.

Organic farming groups and others will likely continue to fight against the use of pesticides and genetic modification in food production for years. When trying to feed the world, one must weigh the risks and benefits of both when establishing food-safety regulations.

With the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, many people in developed countries had become complacent about infectious diseases. However, the increase in acts of worldwide terrorism has caused food security to become a major concern for the food industry and for public health officials. Deliberate biological or chemical contamination of food or water remains the easiest method for widespread terrorism, according to the CDC, and since everyone eats, all are open to an attack. Bioterrorism and the emergence of strains of diseases that have become resistant to antibiotic therapy (such as tuberculosis and some food-borne infections) constitute growing threats to health and life around the globe. An attack through plant or animal disease would have significant economic impact.

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