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Food Poisoning Prevention Basics

Making food safe in the first place is a major effort,involving the farm and fishery, the production plant or factory, and many otherpoints from the farm to the table. Many different groups in publichealth, industry, regulatory agencies, and academia have roles to play inmaking the food supply less contaminated. Consumers can promote generalfood safety with their dollars, by purchasing foods that have been processedfor safety. For example, milk pasteurization was a major advance in foodsafety that was developed 100 years ago. Buying pasteurized milk ratherthan raw unpasteurized milk still prevents anenormous number of foodborne diseases everyday. Now juice pasteurization is a recent important step forward thatprevents E. coli O157:H7 infections and many other diseases. Consumerscan look for and buy pasteurized fruit juices and ciders. In thefuture, meat and other foods will be available that has been treated for safetywith irradiation. These new technologies are likely to be as important astep forward as the pasteurization of milk.

Food poisoning or ("foodborneillness") is largely preventable, though there is no simple one-step preventionmeasure like a vaccine. Instead, measures are needed to prevent or limitcontamination all the way from farm to table. A variety of goodagricultural and manufacturing practices can reduce the spread of microbesamong animals and prevent the contamination of foods. Careful review ofthe whole food production process can identify the principal hazards, and thecontrol points where contamination can be prevented, limited, oreliminated. A formal method for evaluating the control of risk in foodsexists is called the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP system. This was first developed by NASA to make sure that the food eaten by astronautswas safe. HACCP safety principles are now being applied to an increasingspectrum of foods, including meat, poultry, and seafood.

For some particularly risky foods, even the most carefulhygiene and sanitation are insufficient to prevent contamination, and adefinitive microbe-killing step must be included in the process. Forexample, early in the century, large botulism outbreaks occurred when cannedfoods were cooked insufficiently to kill the botulism spores. Afterresearch was done to find out exactly how much heat was needed to kill thespores, the canning industry and the government regulators went to greatlengths to be sure every can was sufficiently cooked. As a result,botulism related to commercial canned foods has disappeared in thiscountry. Similarly the introduction of careful pasteurization of milkeliminated a large number of milk-borne diseases. This occurred aftersanitation in dairies had already reached a high level. In thefuture, other foods can be made much safer by new pasteurizing technologies,such as in-shell pasteurization of eggs, and irradiation of ground beef. Just as with milk, these new technologies should be implemented in addition togood sanitation, not as a replacement for it.

In the end, it is up to the consumer to demand a safe foodsupply; up to industry to produce it; up to researchers to develop better waysof doing so; and up to government to see that it happens, to make sure it worksand to identify problems still in need of solutions.

Everyone has a role when it comes to food safety. When consumers demand a safe food supply, itis up to the industry to produce it, for researchers to develop better methods(e.g., food and drink pasteurization; irradiation of meat products), and forthe government to regulate food safety by identifying and solving problemsbefore and when they occur.

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