Food Safety – Then and Now

Terry D. Etherton

Disease outbreaks that originate from consumption of food attract great media attention, and create concerns for many in society…for good reason. The recent outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in Europe is a good example of this and the societal problems that ensue.  As of July 26, 2011, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control had reported 3900 confirmed or probable E. coli cases including 46 deaths from the recent E.coli outbreak in Europe.  The media attention that a disease outbreak like this causes is staggering!

How staggering?

A Google search of the word sequence “E coli Europe 2011” on July 26 resulted in 10,600,000 results!  Media scrutiny like this can create the image for many in society that food safety issues abound.  The fact is, however, that individuals living in developed countries have the safest food supply in recorded history.  the challenge is how to communicate this effectively to the public.

The story of how agriculture research and contemporary food production practices allow the United States to produce the world’s safest food supply is one that tends to get “lost” in the media frenzy that explodes after a disease outbreak that is linked to food.  When one looks at the record of food-borne diseases throughout recorded history, it is evident that today we have an armada of scientific and public health resources that are remarkably effective in reducing risk of contracting disease from food.  In addition, the public health and diagnostic infrastructure that is in place is phenomenal at determining the cause of the disease outbreak, and delivering appropriate, high-level health care.  I do not talk with many individuals who would like to live life using the biomedical and public health resources that were available in 1850.

To illustrate the power of science, consider the E. coli outbreak that began in Germany in May, 2011…by June 29, 2011, a paper [Brzuszhiewicz et al. Genome sequence analyses of two isolates from the recent Escherichia coli outbreak in Germany reveal the emergence of a new pathotype:  Entero-Aggregative-Haemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EAHEC)] had been published online in the science journal “Archives of Microbiology” that presented the complete genome (DNA) sequence analyses of two isolates from the outbreak!  This would have been impossible 10 years ago!

In the face of a disease outbreak like the one in Europe, we should not lose sight of the fact that advances in science and medicine have had a dramatic and beneficial impact on reducing risk of contracting food-borne disease. Advances in numerous technologies have made this possible.  These include:  canning; autoclaving; refrigeration; microbiology; assay technology (including rapid pathogen assays); meat science; packaging; use of biotechnology; shipping; epidemiology; disease outbreak tracking; and public health monitoring and intervention!

To the point of food safety…then versus now…we should be appreciative of the marvelous food safety systems that are in place, and extol the benefits of the scientific and technological advances that have made all of these possible.  The food-borne outbreaks that occur are identified and dealt with quickly (especially versus prior decades) because of enhanced vigilance, application of science and public health monitoring.

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