For want of a nail

| March 8, 2013 | 0 Comments

There is often one news story that stands out. But this week my attention was caught by no less than three, and they serve to make a point far better in combination than they do in isolation.

First comes a report from the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC (I think that’s the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) called “When Good Food Goes Bad: Strengthening the US Response to Foodborne Disease Outbreaks”. Putting aside the awful title, what we find is a rigorous examination of the US system for identifying outbreaks and their sources. The report picks out effective surveillance for, and rapid response to, outbreaks as key in minimising their impact and makes recommendations as to how the system could be improved.

Next we have a report commissioned by the FDA from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) focusing on product tracing for fresh produce and processed foods. Here the key finding is that advice on traceability best practice should apply to the entire food industry and not just ‘high-risk foods’. As the report says, “Outbreaks during the last several years reinforce the fact that foods previously considered ‘low-risk’ can quickly find themselves on the ‘high-risk’ list.”

Cantaloupe melons are a case in point, with two major outbreaks – one of listeriosis and one of Salmonella infection – being reported in the USA in the last two years. Who would have regarded melons as high-risk for foodborne illness ten years ago? An FDA report on the Salmonella outbreak, which made 261 people ill and killed three, has just been published. The report reminds us that this outbreak covered 24 states and went on for more than two months. The implicated cantaloupes weren’t identified and recalled until it was almost over. This shows just how important it is to be able to spot an outbreak quickly, identify its source and then track back and remove all contaminated food from the supply chain.

Unfortunately, one of the findings in ‘When Good Food Goes Bad’ is that federal funding cuts will probably, “…compromise the public health system’s ability to respond to foodborne illness outbreaks.” Yet it also notes that the amount spent on preventing and responding to outbreaks in the USA is “quite small” in comparison with the estimated $77 billion annual economic cost of foodborne illness. As Americans would have it, “You do the math.” Seeking to save money on food safety is a false economy of a dangerous kind.

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