A Closer Look at Foodborne Illnesses

Despite today’s state-of-the-art methods developed to prevent foodborne illnesses, there still is a problem. Dr. Ruth Petran, Vice President Food Safety and Public Health at Ecolab reveals that knowing which foodborne pathogens are causing the biggest problems in which parts of the world can lead to the development of the most appropriate targeted actions by the public, governments, and the food industry.

What are some of the key reasons for today’s food borne illnesses in the developed world?

Some of this is simply due to poor attention to the behaviors that are fundamental. We know that top contributing factors to foodborne illness are the basics including – poor personal hygiene—washing hands, staying home when ill; improper holding temperatures—foods in the danger zone of 4 to 60 Celsius for too long; contamination from the environment or equipment; inadequate cooking; and unsafe sources of foods. And it’s against these key factors where most violations by health and regulatory officials are reported.

We also have more sensitive technologies that enable better detection of concerns – this is great from a public health standpoint since we
can take actions against risks before they become magnified further, affecting more people. But it may cause some to believe that generally there are higher risks today. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; it’s just that we have a bigger magnifying glass to find them.

Which foodborne illnesses are the most common these days?

Global surveillance data from the World Health Organization published in 2015* indicate that among the top global foodborne illnesses is norovirus, which is easily spread from contaminated food or water, but also from person-to-person or even from unclean surfaces. It causes vomiting and diarrhea, which typically clears up in a couple of days, but in sensitive populations it can be more serious, and it is among the top cause of deaths linked to foodborne illnesses. It can affect groups of people who are gathered together given its easy transmissibility – this could be folks in a long-term care facility, at a wedding banquet, or on a cruise ship. It always originates in an ill person, which is why it’s so important that people who are suffering from vomiting and diarrhea should never handle foods. We suspect that norovirus has been around for a long time, but it was not formally identified until 1968, and even in the ensuing years, it’s likely that illness estimates were low. Now with more sensitive detection technologies, we likely have a more accurate picture of the true burden of illnesses attributed to norovirus. In large part, the controls rely on excluding ill workers from working with or handling food, but it also demands compliant hand washing and aggressive cleaning and disinfection using products that are demonstrated to be effective against norovirus.

What are the preventive measures we can take to prevent foodborne illnesses in the home?

At home, it’s really no different. I really like the World Health Organization’s Five Keys for Food Safety* that lays this all out so succinctly: keep clean, separate raw and cooked, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe water and raw materials. Basically, it’s a matter of being aware of what the risks are and ensuring that they are properly managed.

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