Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Food Safe Families: Does it Prevent Contamination of Foods? Guest Editorial



Patricia Walling*

In just about any news medium, headlines about recalls of meat, poultry and produce due to contamination occur with deadly regularity. Sadly as anyone in health care knows these headlines aren't just hype; food borne diseases can be fatal. This is especially true when they infect the very young, elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “each year, 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of food borne diseases.” The agency notes that among the 31 known food borne pathogens, the leading causes of deaths and hospitalization are: Salmonella, Toxoplasma, Listeria, norovirus and Campylobacter.

Based on this public health problem, a partnership was formed among several U.S. governmental agencies (including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, Food and Drug Administration and the CDC) that are charged with keeping the food sources safe in conjunction with the Ad Council. The campaign, recently announced by the USDA, is titled “Food Safe Families.”

These organizations feel that this promotional effort will “shift the way people think about food handling so they can take a more proactive approach at home to help reduce food-related illnesses.” However, not everyone feels this educational and health promotion campaign will do much to solve the real challenges of the food distribution system.

The Food Safe Families Program

Public service campaigns, created by U.S. governmental agencies have a storied history. From the iconic U.S. Forest Service and Ad Council campaign that featured Smokey Bear admonishing that: “Only you can prevent forest fires” (launched in 1947), to the FDA’s “Food Pyramid” (first launched in 1992, updated in 2005 and then replaced in 2011), there have been hundreds of public service campaigns that are well-meaning but often ineffective.

Will the Food Safe Families campaign have the promotional “legs” of Smokey Bear’s message or join “Just Say No” campaign as a waste of taxpayer money? Only time will tell. However, the campaign includes several aspects that make it important.

According to the USDA Food Blog, “using the motto “Check Your Steps,” Food Safe Families aims to get consumers to adopt four very easy steps when preparing food:

1. Clean: Clean kitchen surfaces, utensils and hands with soap and water when preparing food.
2. Separate: Separate raw meats from other foods by using different cutting boards.
3. Cook: Cook foods to the right temperature by using a food thermometer.
4. Chill: Chill raw and prepared foods promptly.”

These four steps – clean, separate, cook and chill – serve as the graphic and messaging platform of the campaign. The agencies hope that by constantly reiterating this message, it will become ingrained in those who are charged with preparing the family meals.

Even the timing of the launch was important. The agencies choose Jun. 28, 2011, because this is the start of summer and represents the prime outdoor grilling season for most families. The USDA noted in its blog that “food borne illnesses tend increase with more outdoor meals.”

Once the campaign was launched, it seemed that Food Safe Families had covered most of the promotional bases. There were spiffy new graphics, memorable message points, an innovative social media campaign and public service media all up and running. The timing and execution of the campaign was excellent, until people started showing up in emergency rooms with symptoms of Listeriosis.

The Listeria Outbreak

Jensen Farms, located in Holly, Colorado grows and ships cantaloupes throughout the United States. After numerous reports of an outbreak of Listeriosis, the FDA and CDC traced the contaminated melons back to this farm. According to a news update from the FDA on Sept. 30, 2011, “the cantaloupes were produced from the end of July to Sept. 10, 2011. Given that the Jensen Farms’ recall has been in effect for more than two weeks, it is expected that all of the recalled whole Jensen Farms cantaloupes have been removed from the marketplace.”

The website for the Mayo Clinic notes that “Listeria infection is a food-borne illness that can be very serious for pregnant women and people with impaired immune systems. Listeria bacteria can survive refrigeration and even freezing.” As of Oct. 1, 2011, the CDC reported that the contamination had been responsible for the deaths of 17 people and the illness of 84 across 19 states.

In response to this outbreak, the FDA noted that “It is very important that consumers clean their refrigerators and other food preparation surfaces. Consumers should follow these simple steps:

• Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.
• Wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, as well as cutting boards and countertops.
• Wipe up spills in the refrigerator immediately and clean the refrigerator regularly.
• Always wash hands with warm water and soap following the cleaning and sanitization process.”

Do These Guidelines Prevent Food Borne Illness?

For all of the regulations, safeguards, inspections and, yes, public service campaigns, the growers and processors of food employ humans and sometimes they get careless and make mistakes. Such is also the case with homemakers.

In cases where these mistakes cause deadly diseases to spread, the Food Safe Families campaign could help to ameliorate the damages from contaminated cantaloupes, ground meat, peanut butter or any other food. However, it will have no effect on preventing the disease from starting. That involves many other factors. These include: the distance and the number of companies that must handle food between the farm and family and the quantity and quality of the inspections along the distribution channels.

Given time, the Food Safe Families campaign could have a positive impact on the health of U.S. citizens. Even now, the use of the social networks that were launched for this campaign have served as valuable tools to help with the dissemination of information about the latest contamination. However, such programs as buying foods that are produced closer to home may have more impact.


Patricia Walling
Patricia Walling is a web content designer for several healthcare-related sites. She self-identifies as a perpetual student of medicine, and can be found most of the time researching anything
related to the field. She lives in Washington, and as a result loves the long winters.
 

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