The nation's food supply is increasingly vulnerable to a wide variety of harmful bacteria, some of which have been linked to thousands of serious illnesses and more than 100 deaths in the past few months, according to federal health officials who outlined plans to combat the problem at a conference on food safety here.
"The dimensions are staggering: There are 80 million cases of food-borne enteric infection in the United States each year," said Sanford A. Miller, director, Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "The costs of this problem run into the hundreds of million dollars and make (this type of disease) one of the more important (illnesses facing the nation)."
In fact, the threat to food posed by bacteria and pathogens is such that the FDA announced it will make tracking these potentially harmful microorganisms a top priority.
Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA who spoke at this two-day gathering insist that the nation has the world's safest food. Yet there was a consensus that more attention needs to be directed toward fighting the rapidly increasing numbers of food-related illnesses caused by salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, camphylobacter and others.
"We have established new goals and will place greater emphasis on detecting microbiological bacteria," Miller said. He claimed that the changing of priorities is overdue and that federal resources directed toward exhaustive reviews of food additives, such as aspartame, may have been ill advised.
"The problem in the future is not chemicals (in food). We have spent a fortune keeping certain chemicals out of food. Yet carcinogens in food have played a trivial role in the total number of cancers in the United States. In fact, some (food) additives are cancer prohibiters, Miller said. "While still being aware of chemicals used in food, we need a new direction where we concentrate on microorganisms."
This reinvigorated federal effort targets bacteria that attack the gastrointestinal system and cause numerous ill effects, including nausea, fever and diarrhea in various degrees of severity. The action is due in part to recent studies that found that a startlingly large number of people suffer from diarrhea, which is most likely caused by contaminants in improperly prepared food.
Diseases Cause Economic Losses
The number of diarrheal diseases linked to food in the United States is thought to be as high as 80 million cases annually. The economic losses sustained by these sometimes fatal illnesses may amount to more than $150 billion in lost wages and medical costs, according to Douglas L. Archer, deputy director, FDA's division of microbiology.
"Diarrheal disease is increasing for reasons we don't fully understand. . . . We need to break the myth that diarrheal disease is only a nuisance. It could be life threatening," Archer said. "Pathogens (which prompt diarrhea) are believed to present the greatest hazard to our food supply."
In addition to the commonly known bacteria and viruses that may enter the food system, both Archer and Miller said that some presently innocuous pathogens may eventually evolve into life-threatening contaminants. As a result, health officials throughout the country are hard-pressed to prepare for a widespread contamination outbreak when the source and bacteria can change with each new incident.
For instance, Archer discussed a number of food-borne epidemics that illustrate the FDA's frustration. One particular case occurred in the Seattle area in 1982. A type of Escherichia coli never seen before in the United States was diagnosed as the cause of a number of severe illnesses.
Permanent Kidney Damage
The initial symptom of the E. coli was diarrhea lasting a few days. After 48 hours, those infected began to defecate blood, Archer said. Fifteen percent of those infected with this E. coli incurred permanent kidney damage.
An epidemiological investigation found that the source of the bacteria was ground hamburger served at a fast food restaurant. Officials are still uncertain how the bug got into the cattle that were the source of the meat. Shortly after the Seattle epidemic, this particular strain of E. coli was found throughout the United States.
The quick spread of this bacteria is part of a syndrome that Archer described as the "tropicalization of the United States" or the globalization of disease. Specifically, health officials believe that bacteria once limited to certain areas of the world, primarily underdeveloped countries with poor sanitation practices, have become universal with the increased frequency of air travel and food exports.
"There are newly emerging pathogens and new bugs we've never seen before. We're hit with them right and left. Why all of a sudden? There's no answer; they're just there," Archer said.
One theory on the increasing number of diarrheal diseases linked to food-borne bacteria is that the medical researchers' ability to identify microorganisms has dramatically improved in recent years. The particular strains of bacteria that seem to be surfacing may have been present all along, but science was unable to detect them, Archer said.
As for stemming the tide, those federal officials addressing the subject say that most of these infections are preventable. One quoted a Centers for Disease Control study which stated that as many as 85% of all diarrheal diseases are preventable.
"Bacteria are not immortal beings, and if you cook food properly you'll kill them," Archer said. "Our general food supply is safe; it's the people who make it unsafe."
Greater attention needs to be directed to sanitary cooking practices in the home, especially by cooks who prepare dishes calling for lower temperatures or quicker cooking times than those that are generally recognized as safe.
However, the recent problems of Listeria monocytogenes in Jalisco cheese and the salmonella outbreak in Chicago traced to milk present threats that are difficult to predict and control.
"There is no way short of continual surveillance that will take care of people who break the (food safety) law. We need to take these people (convicted of food contamination) and hit them with the hardest (penalty) the law allows," Miller said. "Judges are more cognizant of the potential damage (caused by contamination). Violators used to get just a slap on the wrist. Now, they're faced with jail."
Miller also said the FDA is considering stationing government inspectors in milk processing plants on a full-time basis in order to monitor sanitation.
"In the past, the typical dairy had a few thousand customers. Now one dairy has millions of customers and a breakdown there results in a magnification of the (contamination) effect. We may have to go to (an inspector) in the gigantic (food) plants because we can't afford any more one-day breakdowns."