National Consumers League

Observing World Food Safety Day: Food safety, foodborne illnesses, and the pandemic.

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Happy World Food Safety Day! June 7 is a special day designated by the United Nations to draw global attention to the health consequences of contaminated food and water.

The concept of food safety encompasses all practices that are used to keep our food safe and relies on the joint efforts of everyone involved in our food supply. “Everyone” refers to all actors in the food chain, farmers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, caterers, and many more. Laws and regulations are in place to reduce the risk of contamination under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is transforming the nation’s food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. There are more than 250 types of foodborne diseases, caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Some common foodborne illnesses that are found in our country include:

Norovirus: a contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. You can get norovirus from:

  • Direct contact with an infected person
  • Consuming contaminated food or water
  • Touching contaminated surfaces, then putting unwashed hands in your mouth

Salmonella: lives in the intestines of people and animals. can come from infection from a variety of sources, including:

  • Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water
  • Touching infected animals, their feces, or their environment.
  • The bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 240 deaths in the United States every year.

Clostridium perfringens: a spore-forming bacterium that is found in the environment as well as in the intestines of humans and animals. It is also commonly found in raw meat and poultry, beef, poultry, gravies and dried of pre-cooked foods

  • Infections often occur when foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time before serving. Outbreaks often happen in institutions, such as hospitals, school cafeterias, prisons, and nursing homes, or at events with catered food.

Campylobacter: the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States.

  • Causes 1.5 million illnesses each year.
  • caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry or consuming something that has come into contact with raw or undercooked poultry, seafood and untreated drinking water.

Staphylococcus (Staph): a gastrointestinal illness caused by eating foods contaminated with these toxins.

  • symptoms include sudden nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps, diarrhea.
  • Not washing hands if food is contaminated with Staph, the bacteria can multiply in the food
  • Foods that are not cooked after handling, such as sliced meats, puddings, pastries and sandwiches are especially risky if contaminated with Staph.

As we note efforts worldwide to ensure that our human food supply is safe, we would be remiss in 2020 if we did not note the increased food safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the CDC, there is currently no evidence to support transmission of COVID associated with food. It is important that consumers wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds when handling food. The CDC highlights that, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on many surfaces, there is likely low risk of spread from food products or packaging. The CDC also reinforces the need to avoid cross-contamination of foods in preparing food safely by keeping raw meat separate from other foods, cooking meat to the recommended temperature, which kills harmful bacteria and ensuring that perishable foods are refrigerated.

It is also important to always rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water, including melons and other produce with skins and rinds. Scrub the produce firmly with a clean brush, also remember to clean the lids of canned goods before opening them, says the FDA. Washing produce and cooking meats, fish, and poultry thoroughly is key during this pandemic, especially with so many people preparing their meals at home. Our message to consumers and restaurants and anyone who handles food: as we mark World Food Safety Day, follow these important food safety practices to help prevent foodborne illness and stay healthy and safe during these uncertain times.