Vacationers and retirees migrate to the sunshine state to sample Florida’s assorted culture and homegrown, fresh foods. The variety of people coming and going contribute to Florida’s varied demographic and the unique issues concerning emerging food-borne diseases.
Tracking sources of infection among travelers is challenging when affected persons do not become ill until after they return home. Compounding food-borne illness issues are the number of port cities where food and goods are exchanged and ballast water from ships can carry pathogens from around the world, contributing to pandemic spread of disease.
Ranking the Risks
Today, both the USDA and FDA maintain vigorous standards to ensure food and water safety, but the challenge is daunting. Researchers at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute are helping to diminish the challenge having identified the top 10 riskiest combinations of foods and disease-causing microorganisms. The report, “Ranking the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health” is the first comprehensive ranking of pathogen-food combinations that has been computed for the United States. The report lists the number of illnesses, costs and overall public health burden of specific food borne germs in particular types of food –such as Salmonella in poultry and Listeria in deli meat.
From harvest to dinner plate, procedures and practices are in place to minimize food contamination, but the food industry is not only concerned with maintaining the highest quality and safest product during normal conditions. It is also evaluating procedures that may need to be implemented in times of natural or manmade disasters, such as hurricanes, terrorist acts or large epidemics. As seen recently with Katrina, disruption in the distribution of food and water can create greater burdens in affected areas and prolong the time needed for recovery.
Food Safety Spotlight
Salmonella: An old enemy in new places.
Salmonella illnesses are one of the largest contributors to food-borne disease in the US, and because of the large number of persons affected, mortality is a significant concern. Some Salmonella strains, those of the same species that caused typhoid fever, now produce diarrheal disease with much less severe symptoms and outcome. These strains became endemic in commercial chicken populations, and most outbreaks of Salmonella gastroenteritis were associated with undercooked poultry or eggs. However, several recent large outbreaks in Florida have been traced back to unusual sources involving unpasteurized orange juice or salad tomatoes. Interestingly, contamination of oranges attributed to contact of the product with tree frogs that are ubiquitous in Florida and can harbor the bacterium.
These types of produce are typically too acidic for growth of most bacteria and are usually not implicated food-borne infections. Their association with Salmonella disease is of particular concern because the products are often consumed without cooking. These new cases may indicate evolution of the species towards adaptations that increase survival in acidic foods. Alternatively, introduction of new strains in the food supply may be associated with climatic changes, migrating birds or unsafe harvesting and production practices. Avoiding unpasteurized juices and more extensive washing of produce will greatly reduce the risks to the consumer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I know if I have a food-borne disease?
A:The most common symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea. In most cases these symptoms will be self-limiting and subside after a few days. Persistent symptoms or bloody diarrhea are indications for seeking medical attention. Dehydration can also be a serious complication, especially in young children. If you know of several persons that became ill after eating the same food, you or your doctor should contact the state health department to help determine the source of a possible outbreak. If you suspect food tampering, you can call FDA directly at 301-443-1240, and the USDA has a hotline for problems with beef or poultry at 1-800-535-4555.
Q: How do I know if foods are safe to eat?
A: We do not live in a sterile world, and many foods will contain bacteria or viruses with the potential to cause disease. Usually these contaminants will be at very low levels and will be eliminated by cooking. The most important way for the consumer to ensure food safety is follow some simple rules in the handling, storage and preparation of food:
- Wash hands before and after food preparation.
- Wash produce or anything that will be eaten raw.
- Sanitize cutting surfaces, towels, sponges, etc. that may come in contact with food
- Foods that will be eaten raw should not come in contact with cutting surfaces, etc. that have been exposed to meat, poultry, fish or shellfish.
- Cook foods thoroughly.
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold before serving.
- Refrigerate food for storage shortly after cooking.
- Children and the elderly have increased risk for many food-borne diseases and should avoid undercooked meats or some raw foods that have been implicated in disease outbreaks. Persons with HIV or other immune deficiencies should also exercise caution and cook foods thoroughly.
Q: Are the types of food-borne diseases changing?
A: Many of the diseases that were serious killers in other centuries are no longer an issue in the US. Better sanitation of food and water, childhood vaccination, improvements in food processing, such as pasteurization and canning and increased government surveillance have all contributed to the elimination of epidemic diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, and polio. However, the globalization of the marketplace, changes in eating habits, increased dining out have exposed us to new pathogens. Longer life spans and the AIDs epidemic have increased the population of persons at-risk to serious disease, and the abuse of antibiotics has led to strains of bacteria that may be untreatable even in healthy persons. Many "new" diseases have probably been around for a very long time, but increased knowledge of infectious disease has allowed medical science to ascertain the cause of food-borne infections whose origins were previously unknown.