September is National Food Safety Education Month. Although disease detectives can discover germs and toxins from contaminated food that has made people sick in the kitchens of private homes and restaurants—these places are not necessarily where harmful viruses and bacteria enter the food.
Food contamination can occur at any point along the food production chain—on farms, in food processing facilities, during transportation and storage, or at grocery stores and restaurants. Certainly, safe food handling in the home does play a critical role in preventing food poisoning. That’s why government agencies are actively providing consumer education and information on safe food handling.
- Learn about cross contamination, cold and hot food safety, best practices for personal hygiene, and foodborne illnesses.
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Food Illness Outbreaks
A look at some of the foodborne illness outbreaks over the past years shows that the food was contaminated before it entered the home:
- Frozen Vegetables—Listeriosis, a bacterial infection, caused by Listeria monocytogenes, was linked to frozen vegetable products from a Washington state processing facility. More than 400 products sold under many different brands were recalled but not before the outbreak caused nine cases of listeriosis, all of which required hospitalization, with three resulting in death.
- Flour—46 infections caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) were linked to flour from a major American producer, resulting in 13 hospitalizations. The company has recalled products sold under eight brand names.
- Alfalfa Sprouts—Two types of Salmonella infections linked to alfalfa sprouts made 30 people ill, five of whom required hospitalization.
- Packaged Salads—19 people developed listeriosis linked to salads packaged at an Ohio facility. All 19 were hospitalized and one person died.
- Pistachios—Salmonella linked to pistachios from a processor in California sickened 11 people, two of whom were hospitalized.
Rules of the FDA Address Outbreak Problem
Instead of reacting to outbreaks after they occur, FDA’s new rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act require facilities that manufacture, process, pack or store food for humans or animals to:
- Identify anything that could be a hazard to consumers in the way they make, pack or store their products.
- Put preventive controls in place to minimize or prevent those threats. For example, facilities could take steps to prevent the growth of bacteria and/or kill bacteria that cause foodborne illness, or require their suppliers to put preventive controls at key points in the farm-to-table food chain to help ensure the ultimate safety of their products.
Under the new rules, farms that grow, harvest, pack or hold fruits and vegetables must follow science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce on farms to minimize contamination.
These new rules apply to both imported and domestic food products regulated by FDA. Food importers have to verify that their suppliers are meeting the same U.S. safety standards required of domestic producers. In addition, foreign facilities can have accredited certification bodies conduct food safety audits and certify that their systems meet U.S. standards for the safe production of foods for humans and animals.
The new rules require companies involved in transporting human and animal food—shippers, loaders, carriers by motor or rail, and receivers—to use specified sanitary practices to ensure the safety of that food.
Finally, the new rules require companies to create a food defense plan that identifies where their facilities and systems are vulnerable to intentional adulteration, and put the put into place the processes needed to prevent or minimize the possibility of such contamination.