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Food Protection Connection: Food Safety Then...and Now

(reprinted from Dietary Manager, July/August 2006)

Celebrating eight years since its premier in DIETARY MANAGER as part of the DMA food protection education program, this month’s Food Protection Connection (FPC) provides a progress report on three hot topics in food safety and sanitation. Here is a snapshot of fresh produce, E. coli bacteria, and mad cow disease from past columns (“then”)…and now.

Fresh Produce

Then: Reported in FPC October 1999, Can a Little Garnish Cause a Big Problem?

“A total of eight mysterious outbreaks of Shigella infection…affected hundreds of people in Minnesota, California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Ontario, Canada. These outbreaks traced to fresh parsley chopped and used as a garnish.” The column explains that fresh produce, including lettuce, green onions, raw sprouts, and cut melon, have become “worrisome” vehicles for pathogens.

…and Now: The FDA has taken many actions to minimize the risk for illness from fresh produce. For one, it issued a Sprouts Advisory (see www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/sprsmit.html) and added a prohibition of fresh seed sprouts for high-risk populations to the FDA Food Code.

In the 2005 Food Code, it has redefined potentially hazardous foods to include not just high-protein fare, but any food that can support growth of pathogens under favorable time and temperature conditions.

Among the newest FDA initiatives is a Produce Safety Guide, available on the Web at: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/prodsafe.html. Tips from the guide include:

  • When handling pre-washed greens, as an extra measure of caution, open the bag and wash the produce just before you use it.
  • Even if you plan to peel produce before eating, you should still wash it first.
  • Do not wash fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or commercial produce washes.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.

E. Coli

Then: Reported in FPC June 2002, New Name for an Old Germ:

“New in the 2001 Food Code is a bacteria called STEC, or Shiga Toxin- Producing E. coli. Officials estimate that as many as one-quarter of E. coli outbreaks in the US may stem from non-0157:H7 strains. Furthermore, scientists believe STEC bacteria may spread from person to person, not just food to person. People exposed to the bacteria may become shedders, who pass the bacteria without becoming ill themselves. A new definition serves to highlight the infectious action of E. coli, and to caution us about its family tree.”

Then: Reported in FPC Nov./Dec. 2002, The New Struggle—Ground Beef:

“On September 29, 2002, the USDA said it was “declaring war” on E.coli in beef. According to the USDA undersecretary for food safety, Elsa Murano, scientific data clearly demonstrate the pathogen is more prevalent than previously estimated, and that E. coli is a hazard that is reasonably likely to occur at all stages of handling ground beef products. On average, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reports a major recall of a ground beef product at least once a month.”

…and Now: Incidence of STEC infection has dropped by 29 percent, according to 2006 CDC figures. The USDA also reports that implementation of HACCP in the meat processing industry has made a major beneficial impact.

Nevertheless, the challenge remains. In April 2006, the USDA warned consumers to cook ground beef products thoroughly to prevent foodborne illness, stating it had received 14 reports of STEC-related illness recently in seven states. The Fight BAC! campaign has stepped up its educational efforts related to STEC. Fight BAC! offers free educational material to support food-safe practices that even prevent illness from STEC and other pathogens at www.fightbac.org.

Mad Cow Disease
Then: Reported in FPC September 2003, Getting Mad Again?

“Scientifically speaking, mad cow disease goes by the term, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). This is a progressive, fatal disease in cows affecting the central nervous system. BSE and some related diseases literally cause holes in the brain. The holes replace healthy cells. The brain becomes like a sponge, which is why the disease is called ‘spongiform.’ A downhill course starting with dementia ultimately leads to death. There’s no cure. Scientists believe the disease may transmit to humans, causing a very similar illness: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). The illness is caused by a proteinlike particle called a prion. Typical sanitation methods, such as heat, have no effect on prions.”

…and Now: The USDA reported that a cow in Texas tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in June 2005. The animal was born and raised on a ranch in Texas and was 12 years old. Officials reported the cow was born before the USDA feed ban designed to prevent the spread of the disease was implemented in 1997. USDA officials removed and tested a total of 67 cows from the suspect farm, and were satisfied that the threat had been controlled. No cattle with BSE entered the food supply.

Another case was reported, investigated, and contained in Alabama in May 2006, the USDA reports, adding, “As part of the BSE enhanced surveillance program, more than 700,000 samples have been tested since June 2004. To date, only two of these highest risk animals have tested positive for the disease as part of the surveillance program, for a total of three cases of BSE in the United States.

In Canada, a case was reported in April 2006. There, in all more than 100,000 animals have been tested, and five cases have been identified since 2003. Two cases of people infected by the disease have been reported recently, as well—one in Japan in December 2005, and one in the Netherlands in April 2006. In humans, the illness is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. It can result from eating an infected cow. You can keep up-to-date with mad cow disease at this Web page: www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/hot_issues/bse.shtml.

As credentialed experts in food safety, dietary managers face a continual challenge to keep up with changes in this important area. While we see progress with many foodsafety threats, new threats emerge. Stay tuned to future Food Protection Connection columns for the latest advice about protecting your clients from foodborne illness.

By Sue Grossbauer