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Diet and Nutrition

How Safe Is Our Food Supply?

Why should I be concerned about food safety?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur annually in the United States and result in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Individually diagnosed cases and group outbreaks of food-related illness should be reported to local and state health departments who then partner with the CDC, USDA, and FDA to detect and respond to multi-state outbreaks of disease. Typically, food-related outbreaks occur at group gatherings with meals provided by individuals, catering companies, or restaurants. However, recent outbreaks are more widespread over a longer period of time due to the distribution of contaminated products across the country. In 2009, an outbreak of salmonellosis was traced to peanut butter manufactured in Georgia and used by many manufacturing companies, resulting in illness, death, and the recall of hundreds of products throughout the nation.

What is foodborne disease?

Foodborne disease is usually an infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites in foods or beverages. Foodborne disease also may result from toxins, chemicals, or other harmful substances, such as poisonous mushrooms. Symptoms depend upon the specific contaminant but gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, often occur initially. Recently, scientists have discovered that other diseases, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults and hemolytic uremic syndrome (leading to acute kidney failure) in children, may result from foodborne infections.

What are safe food handling practices?

Although foodborne disease is usually preventable, several measures are needed to avoid contamination of food from the farm to the table. Contamination with microbes can occur through the slaughtering process, farming and irrigation, infected food handlers, or cross contamination with other products. Some precautions for preventing further contamination in your home are:

  1. keep cold foods cold (40° or below) and hot food hot (at least 140°)
  2. wash your hands, cutting boards, and countertops with soap and water before and after food preparation
  3. keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and eggs separate from other foods
  4. thoroughly cook all foods to the recommended internal temperature.

For more information about safe food handling and food borne illness, call the USDA Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 (Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.).

What else can I do to promote food safety in the United States?

As consumers, we share the responsibility for a safe food supply. Know where your food is grown and processed by reading labels; support your local farmer's market. Encourage Congress to advocate for food safety policies and research. Food, Inc., a revealing documentary about the safety of our food supply, will be released in Cincinnati in summer 2009. It will surely increase your awareness of the need for more quality control and food safety regulations in our country.

This article originally appeared in Nutri-bytes (June 2009), a service of the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission.

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Last Reviewed: Jun 10, 2009

Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD
Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati