Will knowing which foods are most likely to cause severe foodborne illness increase consumer and industry vigilance? “Risky Meat,” Center for Science and the Public Interest’s (CSPI) April 23 report stated this as their goal, but they miss an opportunity to offer guidance that could really make a difference.
“Risky Meat,” written by Sarah Klein and Caroline Smith DeWaal, ranked meat and poultry products from highest to lowest risk based upon 12 years of CDC outbreak data and over 1,700 outbreaks. Rather than merely counting illnesses, the severity of the illness was calculated using the hospitalization rate. For example, Listeria monocytogenes, with a hospitalization rate of 94 percent, was given a severity score of 0.94, while Clostridium perfringens, with a hospitalization rate of 0.6 percent, was counted at 0.006. Chicken and ground beef were most likely to cause severe illness and were classified as most risky.
Guidance on how to reduce risk is available by clicking on A CSPI Field Guide to Meat & Poultry Safety. The Consumer Fact Sheets include tips on food preparation, cooking and storage. They recommend washing hands and utensils, indicate appropriate refrigerator temperature, advise using a thermometer to tell when a safe temperature has been reached, and specify the safe time interval between cooking and serving. The Fact Sheets also correctly addresses popular myths related to the safety of locally produced food or eating at an upscale restaurant. I especially like this one: “Bacteria don’t know whether they are at a 5-star restaurant, expensive grocery store, or on a local farm-so practice ‘defensive eating’ every time.” But there is no mention that little used technologies can significantly reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
More than 10 years ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified ground beef, poultry, and processed meat as linked to severe foodborne illness and documented that irradiating these foods would significantly reduce illness, hospitalization and death (Tauxe 2001).
While advising people to wash their hands and use a thermometer when cooking is appropriate, it is unlikely to produce a big change in behavior. When we videotaped 200 households preparing burgers in their homes, we found less than half washed their hands before beginning to cook, only 40 percent of hand washing events involved soap, 32 percent did not wash their hands between touching raw meat and preparing a salad, and only 4 percent used a thermometer to tell when their meat was done (Phang and Bruhn 2011). Amazingly, there was no difference in behavior between those who reported having had food safety training and those without training.
Irradiation is not magical. It doesn’t protect us from prions which lead to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease) and it doesn’t knock out norovirus. People must use proper sanitation, but irradiation can destroy 99.999 percent of E coli O157:H7 in burgers and 99.9 percent of Salmonella in chicken, and it inactivates other pathogens as well (Sommers and Fan 2011). Because the pathogens are destroyed before they enter the home or commercial kitchen, illness due to cross-contamination is reduced. High pressure processing (HHP) can protect packaged deli meats from Listeria and raw oysters from Vibrio (Black, Stewart et al. 2011). Doesn’t it make sense for industry to use the best methods that effectively destroy pathogens and for health educators to advise consumers to select these products?
If we really want to reduce foodborne illness, relying on the consumer to do everything right is unlikely to be effective. While people must take personal responsibility, the food industry needs to provide a product that has the highest level of safety possible.
Technologies currently available, like irradiation and high pressure processing, can provide a level of safety unavailable elsewhere. Food Safety News’ review of irradiation affirmed that irradiation offers significant food safety advantages (Prakash 2010). The meat and poultry industry should offer safety-enhanced irradiated and HHP processed meats, the food service industry should select them, and supermarkets should offer these products to the consumer. A serious commitment to reduce foodborne illness should include a recommendation to select irradiated meat and poultry and HHP products.
Black, E. P., C. M. Stewart and D. G. Hoover (2011). Microbiological Aspects of High-Pressure Food Processing. Nonthermal Processing Technologis for Food. G. V. B.-C. Howard Q. Zhang, V.M. Balasubramaniam, C. P. Dunne, Daniel F. Farkas, and James T.C. Yuan, Wiley-blackwell: 51-71.
Phang, H. S. and C. M. Bruhn (2011). “Burger preparation: What consumers say and do in their home.” J. Food Protection 74(10): 1708-1716.
Prakash, A. (2010) “Is Food Irradiation the Future? Part II.” Food Safety News, July 12.
Sommers, C. and X. Fan (2011). Irradiation of Ground Beef and Fresh Produce. Nonthermal Processing Technologies for Food. G. V. B.-C. Howard Q. Zhang, V.M. Balasubramaniam, C. P. Dunne, Daniel F. Farkas, and James T.C. Yuan: 236-248.
Tauxe, R. (2001). “Food Safety and Irradiation: Protecting the Public from Foodborne Infection.” Emerging Infectious Disease 7(3 Supplement): 516-521.