Health Library

Preventing Foodborne Illnesses From the Farm to the Fridge

image for food allergy article Salmonella and E. coli have become well known causes of foodborne illness in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work to find and contain this source of the illnesses.

Finding the source is a difficult process. Food is tracked from its farm through processing, packaging, store, to homes or restaurants. Salmonella and E. coli are common causes, but there are many other bacteria, parasites, or viruses that cause illness. They can be picked up at any point along the food supply route. Poisonous chemicals or agents can also get into foods and cause illness. So can we trust any food?

Why Worry?

You may have had a food-related illness in the past. Like most people it only caused minor sickness. You felt better in a couple of days. The illness may cause diarrhea, vomiting, and cramping. Perhaps you will have a strong desire to avoid certain foods in the future. However, for some, food poisoning can be much more serious. It can lead to disability or death. Pregnant women are at particular risk. It can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, or stillbirth. People with immune system problems also have a higher risk of more serious illness.

There are several steps to help decrease the chance of getting these illnesses. Pasteurization and safety standards in food preparation and canning are just a few examples. Other processes like food irradiation are newer methods. It is impossible to wipe out every possible germ in food process route. People also need to be aware of their role in decreasing their risks.

Food Watch

Agencies, such as the CDC, are always working to find and contain sources of foodborne illnesses. Meanwhile bacteria, viruses, and parasites are evolving and finding new ways to thrive. New illnesses may arise from new areas or with new packaging and processing methods. Different countries also have different food care standards and enforcements. Imported foods from other countries have caused some food illness outbreaks.

Public health departments track cases of foodborne illness. Many people with the same symptoms suggest a larger problems. Tests of virus or bacteria can confirm that one problem is causing widespread illness. Public health can track where people ate or bought food from. It can help to find restaurants, grocery stores, or farms that may be the start of contamination. Foods may be recalled or restaurants may be closed to prevent more people from getting sick. Problems may be found at:

  • Farm or food source. Contaminated fertilizers or water can pass germs to food that grows in the soil. Sick animals can also pass some germs to humans. Seafood can become contaminated by bacteria in the water and pollution. Animals in cramped quarters can easily spread harmful germs.
  • Food processing plants. Water used to process foods may be contaminated. Water can also wash germs from one items and spread it to others if the same water is used. Human contact can also pass germs to food.
  • Slaughter centers. One sick animal can contaminate large batches of ground meat.
  • Kitchen. A food handler can pass germs during preparation. Washing hands is the best way to avoid this. Food also needs to be properly washed and stored to prevent contaminations. Surfaces and kitchen tools also need to be properly cleaned and stored. Germs can be spread through a whole meal in a dirty kitchen. Certain foods will also need to be cooked at a certain temperature to decrease risk of infections.
  • Home. Storing foods in the fridge can slow or stop growth of germs.

How to Stay Safe

You may not have much control over the first part of your food's journey. Read labels. Make sure your grocery store is clean and food is well stored. Avoid foods stored in refrigerators that don't seem to be working well. Look for expiration or used by dates, and follow recommendations. Check to see the health department rating of your restaurant. When dining out, ask that your food be cooked thoroughly.

Steps you can take at home:

  • Wash your hands before preparing a meal or after contact with raw food.
  • Cook food thoroughly. This is very important with eggs, meat, and poultry.
    • Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm.
    • Use a thermometer to make sure meat and poultry are cooked well.
    • Look on packages or kitchen thermometers for temperature goals.
  • Keep leftovers in the refrigerator. Do not let them sit out for too long.
  • Keep your refrigerator temperature set at 40ºF (4ºC) or below.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
  • Keep raw foods separate while preparing the meal.
  • Wash kitchen utensils and surfaces before moving to different type of food.
  • Use pasteurized eggs and dairy.

Food for Thought

Certain foods have a higher risk of causing illness than others. Consider risks before eating:

  • Sushi and other raw fish, especially shellfish
  • Unpasteurized milks and juices
  • Ready to eat meats—hot dogs or luncheon meats
  • Soft cheeses, unless they are labeled as made from pasteurized milk
  • Refrigerated pates or meat spreads
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood (safe if it is cooked)
  • Raw eggs
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables

These foods should be avoided by people at a higher risk of severe infections. This can include certain those with long term illnesses or women who are pregnant.

Resources

Fight BAC!—Partnership for Food Safety Education
http://www.fightbac.org

National Restaurant Association
http://www.restaurant.org

Canadian Resources

Canadian Food Inspection Agency
http://www.inspection.gc.ca

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

References

Foodborne illnesses. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/food-poisoning/definition-facts. Updated June 2019. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Foodborne illness and disease. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/foodborne-illness-and-disease. Updated March 24, 2015. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Reporting foodborne outbreaks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/fdoss/reporting/index.html/. Updated June 21, 2018. Accessed June 8, 2020.

While you're pregnant—what is foodborne illness? US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/HealthEducators/ucm083316.htm. Accessed June 8, 2020.