Faye Bryant, a retired school bus driver from Moultrie, never wants to get as sick as she did 10 years ago after she ate what she suspects was contaminated barbecue beef at a local restaurant.
A few days after eating the barbecue, she started experiencing bouts of bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps that soon became unbearable. Her husband, who also had the pulled barbecue beef sandwich, was hospitalized as well, but his symptoms were not as severe.
“If you’ve ever had a child, it was worse than that,” said Bryant, who is now 70.
Bryant was hospitalized with an E. coli 0157:H7 infection.
Today, she watches the news for food recalls and restaurant safety warnings like a hawk. Though the statistics can be alarming, experts say you have to look beyond the numbers to realize there’s been progress in improving food safety.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. — or 1 in 6 — get sick each year from food-related illnesses. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year. And in most cases, it’s preventable. Food is usually contaminated where it is grown or in processing. And while the United States has stricter controls, other nations may not.
Consider these recent cases:
- The Kellogg Co. voluntarily recalled 15.3-ounce and 23-ounce packages of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal because of concerns about the potential presence of salmonella.
- Nearly 400 confirmed cases of cyclosporiasis in more than 15 states (not including Georgia) have been linked to McDonald’s salads.
- Federal officials investigated a salmonella outbreak linked to 60 illnesses and at least 31 hospitalizations in five states, including Georgia, linked to fresh cut fruit sold in grocery stores.
And while it may seem like there is an increase in incidents of foodborne illness, public health officials and experts say consumers are actually safer today than they were 20 years ago.
“We have made progress in improving food safety; however, it is hard to compare because of improvement in surveillance, changes in production systems and newer technologies,” said Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, professor and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “The reason why we have seen more recalls is partly due to the advances we have made in detecting outbreaks.”
There is also, he said, greater media attention to recalls and multistate incidents of foodborne illness outbreaks.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulate food production and work to identify areas in processing where contamination may happen.
One of the most important recent steps taken in terms of food safety, he said, was passage under the Obama administration of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which gave the FDA expanded authority to regulate the way foods are grown, harvested and processed. He also said safety has been improved by outbreak detection technologies using whole genome sequencing and establishment of the FoodNet active surveillance system.
FoodNet was established in 1995 and tracks the number of foodborne infections caused by seven major pathogens across 10 U.S. sites, including Georgia, which account for about 15 percent of the population.
In another example, new food rules unveiled by Georgia in 2015 provided expanded food handling guidance, training and service compliance standards for a restaurant’s front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house operations, which included guidelines that required restaurants to keep leafy greens at a specific temperature for a set amount of time to eliminate the growth of bacteria. Once the greens are cut or shredded, restaurants must refrigerate, cook or discard them within four to six hours, according to a Georgia Department of Public Health release.
Foodborne outbreaks are any cluster of illnesses that are linked to a common food. The CDC gets involved when an outbreak crosses state lines or is particularly complicated.
The fact that there are still outbreaks “unfortunately reminds you that we still have a long ways to go in terms of securing the food supply,” said Diez-Gonzalez. “We see the tip of the iceberg. The rest of it is submerged, and in most cases, you don’t hear about that.”
Experts say most people never see a physician. They simply tough it out at home and take over-the-counter medications to stop some of the symptoms.
Dr. Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist for the Georgia Department of Public Health, said the number of outbreaks appear to be consistent for this time of year. “It’s important to highlight that foodborne illnesses represent a significant public health problem. These illnesses are largely preventable, and prevention involves a number of different agencies and partners. … We’re doing a much better job of detecting them faster. It’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.”
In 2017, there were 18 confirmed foodborne disease outbreaks in Georgia, said Drenzek.
Drenzek said most were tied to restaurants or institutional settings such as nursing homes. A few were tied to products sold commercially in retail outlets.
This is a significant public health burden that is largely preventable. Once the source of contamination has been identified, companies voluntarily stop selling the item, or restaurants shut down temporarily and take steps to correct the problem. Consumers are advised to discard the affected product.
“Most clusters will be detected, and there will be more investigations, which is a good thing,” said Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy organization Stop Foodborne Illness. “Companies are taking notice, and that protects consumers and it protects them.”
Still, being extra careful is a good idea, too.
“You just don’t know what’s out there and you can pick something up no matter how clean you are or how sanitary you are,” said Bryant. “You watch what you eat for the rest of your life. I know I do.”
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Anyone can get a foodborne illness.
People with the greatest risk of health consequences include pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
Here are steps you can take to prevent food-related illnesses:
Wash your hands and surfaces often.
Germs that cause food poisoning can survive in many places and spread around your kitchen.
Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during and after preparing food and before eating.
Wash your utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water.
Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.
Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs can spread germs to ready-to-eat foods — unless you keep them separate.
Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from other foods.
Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from all other foods in the fridge.
Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. The only way to tell if food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. You can’t tell if food is safely cooked by checking its color and texture.
Keep your refrigerator below 40 degrees and know when to throw food out.
Refrigerate perishable food within two hours. (If outdoor temperature is above 90 degrees, refrigerate within an hour.)
Thaw frozen food safely in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. Never thaw foods on the counter, because bacteria multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature.