Ten years ago, while training to be a family doctor, I spent several months admitting sick children to a hospital's pediatric ward. We were almost always treating toddlers for severe dehydration—the result of vomiting and diarrhea. Most of them had picked up a highly contagious bug called rotavirus from contaminated food, feces, or other children. It was easy to spot them, with their sunken eyes and parched skin. They looked desperately thirsty, but were too ill to drink. Unfortunately, the only treatment for most food-borne illnesses was—and still is— fluid replacement and time.
Today, the infant rotavirus vaccine has made this type of food poisoning much less common. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still estimates that food-borne illnesses affect 48 million American children and adults each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. In recent years, infectious bacteria such as salmonella have been implicated in outbreaks of food poisoning from contaminated eggs, peanut butter, and raw vegetables. A new report in the New England Journal of Medicine revisits the large salmonella outbreak in 2008 that sickened at least 1,500 people in 43 states and Canada. More than 300 people were hospitalized, and two died. Months of meticulous detective work by public health officials from the CDC and state health departments eventually traced the source to tainted jalapeño and serrano peppers grown on a single farm in Mexico.
It may surprise you that until recently, the branch of the federal government that regulates food—the Food and Drug Administration—had little power to protect consumers against food-borne illnesses. But a food-safety law signed by President Obama last month gave the FDA new authority to order mandatory recalls of food products it suspects are contaminated; establish nationwide safety standards for growing and harvesting produce (the U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue to regulate meat and poultry products); inspect food processing plants overseas that export to the U.S.; and require that food manufacturers establish proactive safety plans to prevent contamination.
This is all good news, but the new law also contains some concerning loopholes. Small food processors and farmers, who have argued that these regulations would be too taxing to implement, are exempt from most of the law's provisions. And despite the law, high-risk food manufacturers are still only required to undergo inspections once every three years. What’s more, a cost-cutting Congress neglected to increase the FDA's budget, hindering the agency’s ability to hire new inspectors. And a shortage of inspectors likely means inspections will occur less frequently than the three-year minimum, if at all.
The take-home message: It's as important as ever to protect yourself and your family from food poisoning. Sign up at Foodsafety.gov to have government food-safety updates and recalls E-mailed to you. If you have children, make sure they are vaccinated against hepatitis A—another food-borne virus that infects the liver—and rotavirus; the CDC recommends all kids receive these shots before age 2.
Contrary to popular belief, most disease-causing viruses and bacteria are found in the kitchen—not in the bathroom. Frequent hand-washing for at least 15 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice), thoroughly rinsing raw vegetables, and cooking meat—especially the ground-up variety—until well-done are all simple ways to prevent food-borne germs from reaching your dinner table.