Food safety experts say the war against food pathogens is far from over. Microbes evolve, and produce now comes from all around the world, including countries that have ineffective sanitation.
“We like to think that we’re winning the battle to maintain control, but we have to realize that we live in a biological ecosystem where we are constantly changing and where on a microscopic level things are changing, too,” said Trent Wakenight, a food safety expert with Michigan State University’s National Food Safety and Toxicology Center. “We’ve still got 76 million incidences of food-borne illnesses a year in this country. There is still a lot to do.”
Listeria is a pathogen that is found in prepared meats and cheeses, while Salmonella is mainly found in poultry and eggs. Vibrio is a pathogen that develops in raw oysters and shellfish. Campylobacter have been linked to later development of arthritis and the acute paralysis called Guillain-Barre syndrome. And E. coli O157:H7 is one of thousands of strains of E. coli that develop in the gut of animals and end up in ground meats as well as vegetables washed in contaminated water or grown close to the soil. While other strains are harmless, contamination by E. coli O157:H7 in children can cause lethal kidney disease.
The battle against pathogens has to be taken into home kitchens where most food contamination occurs today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the problem with food pathogens could be reduced if cooks prepared meats to temperatures greater than 160 degrees, thoroughly washed vegetables and avoided cross-contamination. Summertime is the peak season for contamination with food-borne pathogens because bacteria multiply faster in warm weather than cold, and people need to remember their thermometers, which are sometimes forgotten in backyard cooking or on summer picnics.