Although the Food and Drug Administration is largely responsible for maintaining food safety in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control also contributes to helping halt widespread outbreaks of food-borne illnesses by rapidly identifying and tracking down the source of contamination.
Foods contaminated by harmful bacteria are usually raw, undercooked, unpasteurized, improperly canned or exposed to infected handlers, human waste and unsanitary conditions. Signs that you may have eaten food contaminated by bacteria involve gastrointestinal distress such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and stomach cramping. More severe symptoms include high fever, dehydration, muscle weakness and bloody diarrhea.
Individuals suffering from "food poisoning" generally recover by resting, increasing fluid consumption and watching for signs of dehydration. Severe cases may require hospitalization, medical therapy to prevent kidney failure and supportive nutritional assistance via IV saline/electrolyte solutions.
Food Safety and the CDC
When a potential food-borne illness outbreak is detected, the CDC employs several strategies to identify the source of the outbreak (food, location), the bacteria type, how many people may be at risk and steps to take to contain the illness.
These strategies involve:
- Collecting data electronically from the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS), an organization that partners with local, state and territorial public health agencies to provide vital information about outbreaks and epidemics.
- Using a "case-control" study technique that compares exposure to suspected contaminated food among different individuals or groups of people.
- Investigating the possibility of pathogen subtypes responsible for food-borne illnesses. Isolating pathogens that infect humans and animals and then applying data to mathematical/epidemiological models can provide estimates of illness types associated with each food source. The US Departmant of Agriculture's Food Safety and the CDC have adapted a subtype-pathogen model specifically to examine Salmonella infections that occur in the U.S.
- PulseNet, a network of molecular subtypes that allows the CDC and state laboratories to identify and compare pathogens emerging across the U.S., aids in detecting and containing widespread outbreaks that may otherwise continue to affect people consuming a particular food.
The Future of Food Safety— Is It Possible to Eliminate Foodborne Illnesses?
In an ongoing attempt to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks from occurring, the CDC continues to:
- Use laboratory science and epidemiology tools to provide the public with up-to-date statistical assessments of potential health threats.
- Work intimately with all state health departments by monitoring the frequency of illness outbreaks and conducting national surveillance measures for them.
- Dispatch experienced field teams into emergency situations that require the assistance of pathologists, microbiologists, epidemiologists and specialized medical doctors.
- Engage in the constant development of new methods for the identification, characterization and "fingerprinting" of pathogens responsible for foodborne illnesses.
- CDC officials also translate laboratory and field data into informational systems that can be readily used by public health centers in all U.S. counties and states.
Preventing Food Contamination
According to the CDC, nearly 50 million people in the U.S. gets sick from eating contaminated food every year. Out of those 50 million, about 130,000 are admitted to a hospital and 3000 will eventually succumb to a foodborne illness.
What can be done to prevent people from eating food or drinking water that is infected with a pathogen capable of causing serious, sometimes fatal diseases?
The Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI) recommends the following:
- Stricter government regulations to ensure food service and production facilities are consistently engaging in preventive measures.
- Improve the inspection process abroad and in the U.S.
- Implement standardized training and certification of supervisors working in factories and restaurants in food safety.
In addition, the CIF states that food safety also involves washing hands and utensils before preparing food, making sure foods that need fully cooked are heated at appropriate temperatures, keeping certain foods chilled at the proper temperatures and avoiding the handling of food when suffering from an infectious illness.