Food Safety: Do You Really Know What’s For Dinner?
By Vicky Nguyen, Lord Byng Secondary School, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
In a world plagued by foodborne illnesses, the proverb “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” holds a different meaning. Nowadays, it is challenging to ensure the safety of the food we consume daily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there were 85 food-related outbreaks in the U.S from 2013 to 2015, which is a large increase compared to the 32 reported cases from 1998-2000 (CDC, 2020). Instead of nourishing our bodies, many foods have become double-edged swords, containing detrimental factors for human consumption.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that approximately 600 million people - almost 10% of the global population - become sick after consuming contaminated food every year (“Food safety", 2020). Additionally, 420,000 people worldwide lose their lives due to food poisoning, with children aged less than 5 years old accounting for 125,000 deaths annually. WHO also reported that 23 million people suffer annually from diarrheal diseases, with the most prevalent illnesses resulting from consuming unsanitary food. Furthermore, middle and low-income families spend $110 billion every year on medical care after suffering from foodborne diseases. These statistics draw attention to the enormous toll caused by food contamination.
Foodborne illnesses are linked to the economic conditions of nations. In low-income countries in Asia and Africa, food-related outbreaks and deaths constitute 53% and 75% of those worldwide, respectively (World Bank, 2019). Statistics from developed countries, such as those in the European Union, reported that 23 million people suffer annually from foodborne illnesses (WHO, 2015, as cited in Whitworth, 2020).
Because food goes through multiple stages of production before reaching consumers, the underlying causes of foodborne illnesses can be difficult to trace. As shown in the infographic below, the ingredients in an average burger in Europe come from 74 supply chains worldwide (Forest 500, 2015, as cited in McKenna, 2015). Cumbersome laboratory tracing requires cooperation between health officials at various state levels and laboratories (Leschin-Hoar, 2012). This byzantine process exacerbates the complexity of tracing foodborne illnesses and identifying infected consumers.
There are three types of food contamination: physical, biological, and chemical (Australian Institute of Food Safety, 2019). Physical contamination occurs when physical objects, like hair, pests, and jewelries, enter food. They can contaminate via direct or cross contamination and pose choking hazards and internal organ damages. Even minor malfunctions in dining utensils, such as cracks in bowls, can harbor dangerous bacteria.
Biological contamination originates from harmful microorganisms. CDC reported that the Norovirus is the most common pathogen to cause foodborne illness, with a 42% rate, followed by Salmonella, making up 30%. (CDC, n.d.). Pathogens can survive in harsh environments for an extensive period. Salmonella enteritidis, for example, has been reported to survive for up to four days on dry surfaces (Riboldi et al., 2003). Furthermore, unhygienic food preparation sites allow these microorganisms to multiply rapidly, leading to wide-scale outbreaks. For example in 2010, 20 people suffered gastroenteritis after eating in an Australian burger bar (Government of New South Wales, n.d.). Within two weeks, the number of infected people rose to 179. Salmonella was detected in the bar kitchen, where the bacterium was found on dirty chopping boards and unwashed eggs. This expresses that the most severe food outbreaks can stem from minor processes during food preparation.
Chemical contamination results from pesticide and herbicide residue on food. As increasing food demands propel farmers to use chemicals to raise food production and storage time, consumers are more vulnerable to ingesting harmful chemicals. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that about 4.3 million tons of pesticides were used worldwide in 2018 (FAO, n.d.). Long-term exposure to chemical toxins may lead to neurological and kidney damage and cancer (WHO, 2020). In an interview with WebMD, Dr. Kathleen M. Hayden of Duke University Medical Centre reported that pesticides can impact the release of acetylcholine, a chemical crucial for memory, which is correlated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (Laino, 2009).
Dealing with food safety mandates awareness and action from everyone. As the processes of food transportation, preparation, and serving are intricately linked, protecting our own health lies in the smallest of steps. Washing hands with soap for at least 2 minutes, rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables with water before preparation, and sanitizing kitchenware are effective methods to ensure food safety. All in all, cooperation among the government, food producers, and consumers can hopefully improve the quality and safety of food for everyone.
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