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Food Safety: What's On Your Plate?

Medically reviewed on Dec 31, 2016 by L. Anderson, PharmD

Food Safety: From Farm to Plate

The World Health Organization (WHO) often highlights an area of global public health concern -- Food Safety. Categories of unsafe food include those with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, and cause a host of diseases - from diarrhea to cancers.

Examples of unsafe food include undercooked meats, improperly cleaned fruits and vegetables that may have animal feces, and shellfish containing marine biotoxins.

Foodborne Illness is Common

You probably don't think about food safety and food-borne illness very much - we know it as food poisoning - but you should.

"Food safety" means what we eat is not contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, toxins and chemicals. In fact, each year, roughly 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million, get sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages.

More than 250 different infectious foodborne diseases are known, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Along the food production chain, from producer to consumer, regulations must be observed and safe food handling practices must occur to keep food supplies safe.

WHO: Five Keys to Safer Food

The World Health Organization offers these 5 keys actions to safer food:

  • Keep clean: wash your hands and keep surfaces clean for food preparation
  • Separate raw and cooked food and use different utensils for each
  • Cook your food thoroughly, especially meat, seafood, poultry and eggs
  • Keep food at safe temperatures; don't leave cooked food out for more than two hours
  • Use clean and safe water and safe raw foods, such as fruits and vegetables; don't eat expired food

Bacteria Are Foodies, Too

Over 200 diseases can be spread through unsafe food worldwide. Contaminated food and water are responsible for over 1.5 million childhood deaths each year, usually due to diarrheal diseases.

Other common symptoms of foodborne illness include stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. The simple act of being careful and clean during food preparation to prevent bacterial contamination could dramatically lower these statistics.

If food is contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, regular consumption can lead to cancer, too.

Say Hello to Drug-Resistant Food-Poisoning

Many bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics via overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals. Take Shigella, a highly contagious bacteria that has been hitching rides from travelers outside the U.S. to set down roots in the states. Shigella infects the intestines and leads to cramps, rectal pain, bloody or mucus-tinged diarrhea and vomiting. In April of 2015 the CDC reported that roughly 243 people have become sick with multi-drug resistant Shigella, and about 20% have been hospitalized. Oral antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin have been the standard treatment for Shigellosis, but experts state antibiotic injections may be needed if rates of resistance continue.

Those At Greatest Risk

For those of us that are fortunate enough to have adequate housing, clean water and ample nutrition, food safety is usually not a big concern.

But those at greatest risk are those who are lacking in these basic resources. The homeless, those with mental health disorders, and those in extreme poverty may be more susceptible to foodborne illnesses because they lack these basic resources. For infants, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly who are part of these groups, the consequences of foodborne disease are even more severe and can lead to further disability or even death.

How Does Food Get Contaminated?

Good nutrition is linked with safe food. Unless you are self-sustaining with your own organic farm (and let's face it, most of us aren't) there are many opportunities for your food to become contaminated. From on-farm production, to fertilization, to harvesting or slaughtering, standards must be met to maintain the safety of our food through the production and shipping line.

In places where secure food is scarce, the World Health Organization works to ensure that healthy and wholesome food for everyone is available to improve food and nutrition security.

Chemicals in the Food Supply

Chemicals in the food supply are a major concern for health. The World Health Organization has developed national and international food safety standards to prevent exposure to unsafe levels of chemicals, to ensure fair trade practices, and protect the health of consumers.

Chemicals can be introduced into food either intentionally (as a food additive or preservative), accidentally as a toxin from the environment in air, water or soil.

Freezing Isn't Just for Winter

Need more information on how to safely freeze food to prevent spoilage? The Foodsafety.gov website offers these tips:

  • Freezing food won't destroy bacteria. It just preserves food longer.
  • Keep your freezer at 0 degrees F or colder.
  • Thaw foods in the fridge, not on the counter for hours.
  • Leftovers should be frozen within two hours to prevent bacterial growth.

Food Safety is a Group Effort

You might think the farmer or the rancher are the only people that really have control over food safety. However, there are many steps involved in keeping food healthy "from farm to table".

The U.S. government (like the FDA and EPA), the food production industry, farmers and ranchers, academia and consumers all have a part to play.

Toxicologists, microbiologists, parasitologists, nutritionists, and medical professionals are experts on food safety, but food safety requires the concerted efforts of many groups to help to keep our nation nutritionally sound.

Finished: Food Safety: What's On Your Plate?

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