Costs of acute food-borne illness rising
To save lives and reduce the economic costs of contamination, producers and consumers need to take a farm-to-table approach to safety.
Winter is ending, so we're told. And soon we can anticipate warmer days, more outdoor activities and summer fruits and vegetables. But with the warmer weather comes a hazard that seems to get more serious as time passes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year one out of six people in the U.S. -- 48 million people -- suffers from a food-borne illness. Of that number, 128,000 people are hospitalized and about 3,000 die from their ailments.
That takes a financial toll as well. According to a 2010 report by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, acute food-borne illnesses costs the U.S. about $152 billion annually in health care expenses, workplace absences, insurance claims and other economic losses. And that study estimates more than one-quarter of those costs -- or about $39 billion dollars each year -- are linked to "food-borne illnesses associated with fresh, canned and processed produce."
On Wednesday, Colorado State University is hosting a food safety symposium that will consider what event organizer and CSU professor Marisa Bunning calls a "farm-to-table approach" for avoiding food-borne illness.
"That's the approach that needs to be taken," she said in a press statement, "targeting every aspect of the food chain to reduce the risk of contamination and illness."
The symposium is focusing on one particular item of produce, cantaloupes, to look at the broader food safety issue.
In 2011 and last year, cantaloupe contamination caused two deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness. The 2011 outbreak of listeria claimed victims in 28 states and was traced to how whole cantaloupes produced in Colorado were processed after harvesting. The outbreak killed 33 people, while 147 others were injured and a pregnant woman who became ill suffered a miscarriage.
The 2012 outbreak involved cantaloupes produced in Indiana that had been tainted by salmonella. That event led to three deaths and 261 illnesses across 24 states -- and was reportedly due to contamination from the melons' growing environment.
Lawrence Goodridge, an associate professor of food microbiology at CSU, assisted state and federal officials in tracking the 2011 and 2012 outbreaks. He notes that while the Food and Drug Administration is planning its own inspections of cantaloupe plants and facilities this season, the big growers and processors are ultimately responsible for ensuring their facilities and practices are in line with FDA guidelines.
Goodridge also calls into question the practice of third-party auditing. That's when an independent company reviews a facility's sanitation and food-safety practices for a large grocery retailer -- like Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT) or Kroger (KR) -- which might be purchasing that facility's produce.
He notes that, just before the 2011 outbreak, a third-party auditor gave the Colorado farm linked to the lethal listeria contamination a top score.
The government is also more involved in efforts to prevent food-borne illness. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law in 2011, shifts the focus of FDA regulators toward preventing food contamination, rather than just responding to outbreaks. The legislation also holds food companies accountable for preventing contamination, and it requires facilities to evaluate possible food hazards in their operations and take any corrective measures needed.
Goodridge believes that as food sources become more globalized, safety standards are at a crossroads. "We're seeing increases in large, multistate outbreaks of food-borne disease," he said. "And that's because food production is becoming very centralized, and then it's shipped out all around the country. If we want to be serious about increasing the safety of the foods that we eat, then we need to be willing to take steps."
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