Curious about how race and socioeconomic factors factor into foodborne illness risk, a number of researchers over the past few years have looked at foodborne illness risk among low-income and minority populations. Study findings show increased risk among minority populations, but researchers experience difficulty ascertaining whether disparities exist at the income level, mainly because of the way foodborne illness data is tracked.
Jennifer Quinlan, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University whose research focuses on identifying food safety risks for minority racial/ethnic and low-income populations, says that, overall, data shows a greater risk of foodborne illness among minority populations, but income-level data is hard to come by.
Quinlan’s research has found that food safety problems are more prevalent at small, independently owned markets where many urban, low-income and minority populations shop. Risks include produce with high microbial counts, bacteria in milk and fecal coliform contamination. Quinlan and her fellow researchers speculate these risks could be related to transportation, sanitation and refrigeration practices at resource-constrained establishments.
In addition to risks in the retail environment, cultural background and knowledge of best food safety practices also play a role in foodborne illness rates. Safe food handling practices in the home are of particular importance.
A study out of the Emerging Infections Program at the Yale School of Public Health found that among children under age 10, more cases of campylobacteriosis occurred among low socioeconomic status populations. Food safety risk may be higher among low socioeconomic status groups due to limited food safety knowledge, crowded homes and smaller kitchens, James Hadler, one of the authors of the study, told Food Safety News in June.
Focus groups conducted as part of a Cornell University study on food safety risk among Mexican-Americans living in the United States found that most focus group participants (80 percent of whom were from low-income populations) did not properly defrost meat; many frequently left food out for more than two hours before refrigerating, hastily washed cutting boards and utensils before reusing, consumed raw eggs despite knowledge of Salmonella risk and believed food thermometers are unnecessary, according to Pilar Parra, research associate and senior lecturer at Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences and lead author of the study.
She says the study also gave her group insight into how to improve food safety practices among the population represented by the focus groups.
“The study shows we have a very nice window of opportunity to launch very tailored messages,” said Parra in an interview.
Researchers speculate that resources for maintaining safe food preparation and handling practices within the home could be more limited among low socioeconomic status populations. For example, they might not have access to adequate cleaning supplies or water hot enough for cleaning.
“There’s a poverty issue but there’s not funding to look at it,” Quinlan told Food Safety News in an interview. “There is a basic lack of resources for proper safety and sanitation.”
According to Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, it appears that foodborne illness risk is higher among low-income populations, but research in this area is not robust or conclusive enough to paint a strong picture of the situation.
As outlined above, most studies involving food safety among low-income or minority populations are small or regionally focused, making it hard to generalize findings. These small studies are helpful for understanding issues that may be relevant to very specific populations, but a major initiative in this area would be helpful, Parra says.
One challenge contributing to the limited research in this area is that there is no data tracking foodborne illness by income level. The Centers for Disease Control tracks foodborne illness data by factors including age, sex and ethnicity, but not by income.
Researchers interested in foodborne illness risks among low-income populations agree that data collection at the income level would be helpful for advancing findings in this area and protecting public health.
As of now, “The best you can do is try to correlate [foodborne illness with] minority populations, which tend to be low-income and tend to have higher risk of foodborne illness,” Quinlan says.
Income-level data would allow researchers and public health professionals to better understand how foodborne illness impacts low income populations, as well as to better allocate resources and create more targeted public health programs and interventions to address potential disparities.
“CDC has capacity to develop a broad strategy and get all stakeholders on board in terms of how to collect that information at the local level,” Waldrop says. “They are in a really good position to drive that approach.”
Until then, public health advocates must remember that while increasing access to nutritious and affordable foods among low income populations is of extreme importance, efforts must be made to ensure the foods sold are safe and that consumers know how to prepare and store foods in a way that protects their health.© Food Safety News