– OPINION –
The theater building at Texas A&M College had an inscription “Ignorance Is the Curse of God,. Knowledge Is the Wing Wherewith We Fly to Heaven. Shakespeare”. That curse has resulted in thousands of illnesses and deaths due to ignorance of safe food handling procedures.
A. Dr. Mindy Brashears speaks
In a recent column, Dr. Mindy Brashears she noted there is “… an insidious movement we have in society right now, one that undermines science. Not only has the meat and poultry industry been painted in a negative light recently, the scientific-community has also taken a hit. There is a trend, if not a solid perspective for some, that science isn’t real and data can’t be trusted.” Additionally, she noted in advocating consumer education that, “There was insistence by some of the groups that consumers had no responsibility for food safety and the food should be free from pathogens when it arrived to the consumer. There is no science in this approach and it overlooks an important point in the supply chain where risks can be mitigated.”
She concluded, “In 2022, we must stand resolute in science-based decisions, support the scientific community and protect the consumer and the safety of our food supply.”
Part of my comment to the article is: “Consumer education is ideal and has been ongoing for over a half century. It fails too often. In the 1970, “A Review of the NAS-NRC Report. An Evaluation of the Salmonella Problem” USDA’s Microbiological Subgroup of the USDA Food Safety Committee. They cited examples of current programs. Fifteen years later USDA formed the Hot Line to answer consumer questions and develop educational programs.
B. Education is ideal and idealistic and alas has a history of failure.
The National Academy of Science (NAS) Committee on Salmonella published “An Evaluation of the Salmonella Problem” in 1969. In 1970, USDA scientists reviewed the NAS report in “A Review of the NAS-NRC Report. An Evaluation of the Salmonella Problem.” All agreed that consumers needed more training in handling food safely.
The NAS recommended, “The federal government should take the lead in developing a coordinated industry-professional-local-state-federal government plan for the control of salmonellosis that will generate the technical and financial support for the expansion of education efforts on a continuing basis…”
USDA commented, “The Department concurs with the recommendation in principle. It does not agree that a single agency be designated to coordinate training or act as a single authority”
“The Department initiated coordinated educational programs to support its regulatory programs for the control and eradication of salmonellae in chickens and turkeys. The programs were inaugurated in 1935 and 1943, respectively…” USDA listed eight accomplishments and listed seven things that should be done including “Continue and intensify educational programs regarding salmonellae in the environment, their control in animal feeds and animal products used for human food.” and “Devote more educational effort to the urban sector of our society regarding salmonellae associated with foods, pets, and home sanitation.”
Given the scientific publications in the subsequent half century on consumer expertise, it’s evident the educational efforts have not been fully successful.
There are several papers on failures and the barriers to implementing safety practices. An example is Feng and Bruhn (2019); they wrote, “Barriers to thermometer were categorized into two major groups: “the belief that a thermometer is not necessary” and “the difficulty of selecting and using a thermometer.” Each group has its unique aspects. Four barriers were recognized in the “not necessary” group: (I) preference for alternative techniques, (ii) mainstream media and food professionals seldom serve as role models and often negate the need for food thermometers, (iii) limited awareness of potential health issues associated with current practices, and (iv) limited knowledge and awareness related to thermometer usage for specific food groups. Six barriers were recognized in the “difficult to select and use” group” including “difficulties in selecting the type of food thermometers …”
I recommend: “TABLE 4. Quotations identifying barriers to food thermometer use among consumers and food workers.” Ewen Todd in an email exchange wrote, “Some authors call this the anchoring effect where we tend to go back to our culture roots no matter what information we are given.”
In a review of a journal issue, Todd (2020) wrote, “In conclusion, these five papers add to our knowledge of how to understand why preventing and controlling food-borne illness is so difficult. Consumers and the public in general react to broadcast news and nowadays social media, as well as their base culture, for setting their anchoring of how they perceive risks of illness from eating specific food items.”
Another example of ignoring science and education was after the Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak in salami. The industry contracted with the Food Research Institute to develop processing guidelines to prevent another outbreak. After several years, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) surveyed the industry to determine compliance and found 49 establishments not using the guidelines. They amended their processes only after microbiological analysis found pathogens in their finished products. Survival of enteric pathogens had been established in earlier by Smith and Palumbo (1975) but ignored by both the industry and USDA.
Thus, food safety education programs will not be fully successful, especially by those who are ignorant of science. The opposition to Covid-19 vaccination and masks is an extreme example of civil ignorance.
Another consumer problem is the design of home kitchens. Few are designed to prevent cross contamination between raw and ready-to-eat. My own 1958 kitchen, while much larger than the one in the previous 1948 house, offers many opportunities for cross contamination. Most home kitchens would not pass local jurisdictions retail specifications and certainly not the FSIS requirements for separation. Thus, the occupants must be competent in aseptic technique, not buy raw poultry, or be very lucky.
What are some solutions? The status quo is let the ignorant suffer.
1. Licensing consumers to purchase raw meat or poultry similar to how some jurisdictions require certified food manager on site during all hours of operations.
2. Eliminate pathogens in slaughter establishments. Discussed in the next section.
3. Incentivize producers to eliminate zoonotic carriage in their animals. This option is ideal and idealistic but can be accomplished as Pomeroy did in the 1970’s. It is also similar USDA’s “One Health Approach: https://www.usda.gov/topics/animals/one-health
Yes, keep educating consumers; there will always be wild zoonoses in the environment but, more can be done to reduce the pathogens from FSIS inspected products. Do not ignore that problem.
C. Slaughter Establishments Pass Pathogens
One source of pathogens entering home and retail operations is the failure of inspected slaughter establishments to eliminate the pathogens carried by entering animals. An illustration is the permitted Salmonella prevalence permitted by the FSIS Salmonella Performance Standard. The Standards, based on surveys, recognize the problem of eliminating pathogens from pork and poultry because of the presence of non-visible fecal material in the empty follicles. Beef carcasses, because they are skinned have lower standards. Because the older cows and bulls generally have greater pathogen carriage, they have a higher standard than the younger steers and heifers. The declaration that certain outbreak serotypes of Shiga Toxin positive Escherichia coli (STEC) are adulterants in ground beef and designated trim has provided an incentive for greater post harvest control.
Research has developed and evaluated many carcass interventions including, chlorine, acetic acid, peracetic acid, lactic acid, and hot water, sprayed and pulsed. Some are used alone or in combination and yet pathogens end up on product.
D. Preharvest One Health
The failure to eliminate the pathogens entering on animals has stimulated decades of research in preharvest control by academia, industry, and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Similar research has demonstrated the environmental contamination originating from food animal production facilities sometime called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and dairies. The environment includes recreational waters, produce fields and orchards. The vectors include water runoff, wind, and wild animals, including insects and birds.
Lacking is incentives for implementing the known interventions to reduce pathogen carriage. One incentive could be EPA regulation enforcement. Other incentives could be Congressional legislation to include human pathogens in APHIS’ jurisdiction or put the preharvest environment under FSIS jurisdiction. Another would be to declare outbreak strains of pathogens as adulterants as FSIS has done for certain STEC.
Eliminating pathogens is practical Pomeroy (1989). He eliminated Salmonella carriage in turkeys in the 970’s, starting with Salmonella-free poults and used biosecurity, including feeding only grain and seafood protein. Currently growers also have vaccines, bacteriophage, prebiotics, probiotics, and other controls. What is lacking is incentives.
A comment to Brashears’ article was, “How about educating those future consumers the concept of personal responsibility at some point K-12?” I replied, “… how about producers taking responsibility for the environmental contamination from their yards including manures? Lots of science about movement of pathogens vis air, water and birds.” and cited, Smith, O.M. et alia. 2022. A trait-based framework for predicting foodborne pathogen risk from wild birds. Ecological Applications. doi.org/10.1002/eap.2523”.
In conclusion, education is one of several pillars for food safety. In an ideal world it could be the sole pillar but that would require redesigning home and retail kitchens, mandatory training, and licensing. The One Health approach is needed to reduce environmental contamination from food animal production, fewer pathogens entering slaughter establishments, and fewer pathogens in produce fields and orchards. Thus, fewer pathogens entering home and retail kitchens where hopefully competent preparers would eliminate the hazards. Think of the combination of vaccination, masks, and distance. Each alone is imperfect in halting the COVID-19 viruses but together they reduce the hazard to de minimus. For food safety, a similar defense in depth approach is needed.
Brashears, M. 2022. A resolute focus. Food Safe and Sound. https://www.meatingplace.com/Industry/Blogs/Details/102854
Custer, C.S. 2014. Salmonellosis Prevention: Just Cook It. Food Safety News
Feng, Y., C.M. Bruhn. 2019. Motivators and Barriers to Cooking and Refrigerator Thermometer Use among Consumers and Food Workers: A Review. 82:128-150. doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-18-245
Pomeroy B.S., Nagaraja K.V., Ausherman L.T., Peterson I.L., Friendshuh K.A. 1989. Studies on feasibility of producing Salmonella-free turkeys. Avian Dis. 33:1-7.
Smith, J.L., Palumbo, S.A., Kissinger, J.C, Huhtanen, C.N. 1975. Survival of Salmonella dublin and Salmonella typhimurium in Lebanon bologna.. J. Milk Food Technol. 38:150-154.
Todd, E. 2020. Food-borne disease prevention and risk assessment. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(14):5129. doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17145129