Guarding Against Microbes
What You Can’t See Can Hurt You
Before you can protect against microbes, it is important to know exactly what a microbe is and what harm it can do. Microbes are single-celled organisms that can only be viewed through a microscope and come in three main forms: fungi, bacteria and viruses.
Microbes are often mistakenly referred to as germs, and this misleads many people into believing that all microbes are harmful. The truth is that ninety-five percent of microbes are, in fact, harmless. Some are both useful and necessary, such as yeast, which is a foundational ingredient in leavened foods like bread.
Examples of harmful microbial fungi are athlete’s foot and thrush. Bacterial microbes can cause diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough, and viral microbes are responsible for illnesses such as chicken pox, influenza, measles, mumps and rubella, to name a few.
When dealing with the small percentage of harmful microbes, there are many things of which one must be aware, including their debilitating effects, how they are spread and, most importantly, the precautions to take to prevent their spread and potential for infection.
Microbes can be spread in a variety of ways including through the air, touch, water contact with animals or contaminated food. Foodborne illnesses, more commonly referred to as food poisoning, occur when contaminated food has been ingested, causing stomach cramps, nausea, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Food contamination is a major cause of microbial-related illness.
Foodborne microbes can cause illness as soon as twenty minutes after ingestion and up to as long as six weeks later. Examples of foodborne illnesses include botulism, E. coli, hepatitis A and E, listeria and listeriosis, norovirus and salmonella.
Some individuals are at a higher risk than others when it comes to microbial infections, including young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems. For the rest of the population, it is a good thing our bodies are equipped with many natural defense mechanisms that help to guard against potential harm. The stomach acid, the cilia in the respiratory tract, and our mucus, tears and skin are natural bodily defenses against microbial infection. The immune system also fights infection and relies on white blood cells to create antibodies that stick to microbes to eradicate them.
Other lines of defense are vaccinations to build immunity or, when an infection has already set in, antibiotics. Another fundamental way to avoid the harmful effects of microbial infection is proper food sourcing, handling, preparation and storage.
Food is subject to contamination via the environment, processing, accidental point sources, adulteration and natural toxins. Contamination can take place at any point in the food production chain, including production, processing, distribution and preparation. Four simple, yet important steps to follow to avoid contamination in food preparation are: clean, separate, cook and chill.
Cleaning, be it regularly washing one’s hands, cooking tools or surfaces, is a great starting point. Raw meats should be separated from other foods in the kitchen, grocery cart and even in the refrigerator. Cooked food should never make contact with surfaces that previously held raw meat. Cooking meat requires vigilance and careful attention to prevent cross-contamination.
It is also important that food be cooked to the right internal temperature, as laid out in numerous food guides that are easily accessible in cookbooks and online. Food irradiation is a process by which food can be treated with ionizing radiation energy. For processed foods and many other foods that are found in the grocery store, irradiation can kill microorganisms that can cause illness or premature food spoilage.
Chilling food is another essential step to take to prevent foodborne illness. Perishable foods should be refrigerated within two hours of purchase and should never be thawed at room temperature. While the countertop seems like a good place to thaw or marinate, it is best when done in the refrigerator.
Each year in Canada, more than four million people get food poisoning, while in the US, the government estimates that forty-eight million cases of foodborne illness are experienced annually, the equivalent of one in six Americans. Of those who become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 cases end in death. And this is where food safety regulations are among the best in the world.
Food safety in North America is attributable to science-based regulatory bodies such as Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) in the US. These top public agencies are given the task of ensuring the safety of the national food supply.
The food and beverage industry, in partnership with governments and consumers, establish policies, regulations and standards and conduct regular surveillance and risk assessments in the food supply. In the U.S. there are more than three thousand agencies at the national, state and local levels that work together to ensure food safety in retail and foodservice sectors.
Commercial food manufacturers, especially those that import food products, are subject to far greater scrutiny as regulations vary around the world, and the failure to meet regulatory standards can have a far-reaching and detrimental impact on public health and safety.
Regulatory agencies are responsible for developing standards for food production, including safe food handling, packaging and the manufacturing processes employed. It is the responsibility of the food seller, the manufacturer and the distributor to ensure the safety of food products, as well as the packaging materials and processes.
Hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) is a management system or systematic preventative approach to food safety that was developed by Pillsbury for NASA and adopted by FDA in the 1990s. It takes into consideration the biological, chemical and physical hazards in food production processes that pose risks like material production, procurement, handling, manufacturing, distribution and consumption.
HACCP is built upon seven actions that reduce the risk of contamination: conducting a hazard analysis, identifying critical control points, establishing critical limits, monitoring procedures, performing corrective actions and verification procedures and ensuring records are kept and maintained.
When prevention fails, regulatory agencies investigate to determine if there is a common cause. Once evaluated, agencies can issue recalls for products that do not meet safety and sanitation requirements, tracing those foods from the source through distribution channels to prevent further harm to the public.
Instances where the food supply is found to be at risk can result in millions of dollars in losses for companies and serious public harm. Sometimes the action is initiated because of a customer complaint, while other times, it may be the result of a food test result, trade complaints or information provided by law enforcement officials.
There are countless examples of recalls in North America of foods that pose a risk to public health and safety, as well as the economy. One of the largest recalls in the US involved Peanut Corp., a company that knowingly shipped products containing salmonella between 2007 and 2008.
Because its tainted peanut butter and other products were used in the manufacturing processes of other companies, it widened the impact of the recall. A total of 3,200 products were recalled by FDA and CDC as a result.
Peanut Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. The whole fiasco caused the sale of peanut butter to drop significantly in 2008 and 2009, which affected the entire industry from farmers to manufacturers and retailer. The damage came with a price tag of $1 billion.
Some of the most common recalls in North America are for beef, processed meats like lunchmeats and leafy greens. Food safety experts suggest staying away from foods like raw shellfish and seafood, undercooked meat and food items like steak tartare, raw eggs, fresh vegetable sprouts and unpasteurized drinks.
Recently, in Canada, CFIA recalled IKEA brand marshmallow candy citing mice infestation as the reason for contamination. Products were sold in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. No illnesses have yet been reported, but it demonstrates how severe and how far-reaching food recalls can be.
Recalls like these reinforce the importance of regulatory agencies like Health Canada, CFIA, FDA and CDC and their management systems. The oversight of food producers is in the interest of public safety and helps to ensure safe, sustainable supply chains on which people rely.
There are costs related to the research and development of management systems and best practices, public health agencies and costs due to the impacts of recalls and failures to uphold food safety in the food production supply chain. The greatest cost is the potential impact it can have on the public.
Public health and safety relies greatly on regulations and best practices, especially at the retail and foodservice levels, though the same safeguards that are used commercially can be used at home. Follow the simple steps of clean, separate, cook and chill, and the risk of microbe-related illness will be mitigated. It might also be wise to double-check those leftovers in the fridge.