Dausey urges vigilance in food safety

Mercyhurst farm

Tainted food outbreaks are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. This past August, salmonella contaminated cantaloupes that sickened more than 140 people and killed at least two. In September, there were reports of listeria-contaminated ricotta cheese. Mercyhurst University Public Health Professor Dr. David Dausey calls these outbreaks “shameful” and says there is more that can be done to prevent them.

“We are well aware of the factors that lead to food contamination and strategies to prevent contamination from happening,” Dausey said. “What we lack is political will, government oversight and funding to ensure food safety.”

In the latest episode of The Dausey File: Public Health News Today, Dausey argues that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs to increase regulation and oversight of food with the goal of having “all food be safe all of the time.”

Since 1990, there have been more than a dozen food-borne outbreaks associated with cantaloupe alone, he said. The problem with fruit, such as cantaloupes and berries, is that they are difficult to clean because their surfaces aren’t smooth, which increases the probability of contamination. And the problem isn’t restricted to fruit. Tainted food outbreaks have occurred with everything from readymade cookie batter to packaged ground turkey.

Dausey said that several issues are driving these types of outbreaks: first and foremost is the globalization of our food supply. Many of the tainted-food outbreaks of recent years stem from food that was processed and packaged outside the U.S. where food safety standards may be less rigid.

Second is the promulgation of “mega-farms” and the mass production of food. “There are two issues here,” Dausey noted. “The first is that these huge farms make it so food no longer receives the same care and attention it once did. The second is that if you do have a problem in one of these large farms it can affect millions of food products across multiple states and, indeed, multiple countries.”

Third, Dausey noted that the complexities of food processing operations have increased significantly in recent years and that people are eating more and more highly processed foods. “With each step we’ve added to food processing, we’ve added another step where a pathogen can enter the food supply,” he said.

Buying organic food doesn’t necessarily guarantee its safety, either. The best way for consumers to protect themselves from tainted food is to know where their food is coming from. Dausey said people should consider purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables at their local farmers markets. He also recommended eating fewer highly processed foods and following basic food safety rules, including washing fruits and vegetables before eating them and ensuring that cutting boards used for meats are not the same as those used for fruits and vegetables.

For more information, contact Dausey at ddausey@mercyhurst.edu.

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