Is our food really safe? The plethora of contamination events over the past few years certainly begs the question. The first major contamination event occurred in 1998 when Sara Lee recalled 35 million pounds of various meat products. Recalls were pretty quiet for about 8 years and then:
• In 2006, E. coli contamination was found in packaged spinach that made 300 people sick in 26 states and caused 3 deaths.
• In 2007, Tyson recalled 40,000 pounds of beef in 12 states due to E. coli contamination
• In 2008, Topps Meats recalled 21 million pounds of beef due to E. coli contamination that resulted in the closing of that company. Also, this year, there were recalls of lettuce and spinach produce due to Salmonella contamination.
• In early 2009, King Nut had a massive recall for Salmonella-contaminated peanuts that recorded 399 cases in 42 states.
Over the past three months, several incidents were reported. Between November 2009 and January 2010, over 2.8 million pounds of meat products were recalled due to contamination by E. coli or Salmonella and in February 2010, 225 people in 44 states were determined to have been sickened by Salmonella in imported black pepper used in the preparation of salami and other types of Italian sausage made by a company in Rhode Island.
In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that 76 million people are infected with bacterial contamination annually, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths! (At that time, the pathogens most responsible for contamination were Camylobacter jejuni, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Cyclospora cayetanensis).
Most authorities contend that there is significant under-reporting and the statistics have increased dramatically as the only major contamination event reported prior to the CDC report was the Sara Lee incident. Also, almost all recent contamination events are attributed to either E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria.
Most people believe the growth in the number and magnitude of contamination events is attributed to a combination of several factors that include: (1) the increased globalization of food sources, (2) the lack of federal regulations regarding food quality, and (3) the desire for food processors to increase revenue and profits, thereby reducing quality controls to ensure the consumer obtains “safe food.” To add to the dilemma, a report recently released by a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist indicated that food-related illnesses are estimated to cost the United States $152 billion annually in health care and other losses.
Our government is taking some actions, but probably not enough to make a significant difference. President Obama has requested a 30 percent increase in funding in 2011 for the FDA food safety programs. According to the agency, the budget will invest approximately $1.37 billion to strengthen food safety efforts, up $318.3 million from 2010 while FSIS (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service), on the other hand, would receive a less than 2 percent increase of $18 million to $1.046 billion for 2011, compared to $1.028 billion in 2010.
The increase in contamination events prompts the questions, how can it be prevented and how is testing done today. Researches are constantly investigating treatment methods that would kill bacteria before the food product is shipped to the consumer, but thus far none have been successful without adversely affecting the taste or structure of the food product. So, inspection is the only viable method today.
About 80 percent of the testing is done the way most of us learned in high school biology. A meat sample is shipped to a test lab where a “scraping” is cultured in accordance with established methods in a Petri dish. In roughly 24-72 hours, if bacteria are present in the sample it will appear in the Petri dish. A trained microbiologist will take a sample, place it on a glass slide, examine it under a microscope, and determine the number and identification of the bacteria present. Considering transportation time and test lab queues, results may not be available for a week or more and even if a contamination event is recorded, a confirmation test is done before any action is taken. Since food processors do not “hold” inventory, a confirmed contamination results in recall. Coupling this to the fact that only small samples are taken for examination, it is quite possible a contaminated product could elude the inspection process.
Several companies have developed quicker methods, the most popular being the DNA testing otherwise known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic systems. PCR systems entered the market over 10 years ago, but in a conservative, cost-conscious industry, acceptance is slow. According to an industry consulting firm, rapid microbial identification processes only make up about 20 percent of all testing done. In 2007, this represented over 630 million tests that is growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year. PCR systems typically perform an ID in 36 to 48 hours with greater than 90 percent accuracy at a cost per test of about $10. Some new systems can complete the whole process in 10 hours but at a cost of as high as $45 per test and a capital cost exceeding $40,000. The test cost is driven mostly by the specific reagents or chemicals and the sample equipment needed to perform an ID. A novel test method uses the principles of multi angle laser light scattering combined with proprietary algorithms to perform an ID. The entire ID process takes less than 10 minutes and since no chemicals or reagents are used, the cost per test is about 10 cents. The capital cost of the System is significantly cheaper than the lowest priced PCR System. Other rapid methods exist with a cost per test as low as $2, but are compromised in either accuracy or specificity.
Most rapid test methods are validated by independent agencies. AOAC Research Institute (RI) is probably the one most respected in the industry. They create a test protocol that rigorously tests the “method” for accuracy and robustness. The accuracy testing is done by two different sources. If an inconsistency in the test results occurs, the testing is either redone or a “referee” within the AOAC RI organization together with inputs from the two test sources decides if the “method” should be certified.
Cost effective, reduced time inspection systems are highly desired with the goal of preventing contaminated food from ever reaching the consumer. Improved food test methods won’t solve all the problems, but they will certainly reduce the amount of annual illnesses and thereby reduce health care costs.