Food Safety Important on Thanksgiving and Always

Posted in: G-Town News- Nov 16, 2010 Comments Off on Food Safety Important on Thanksgiving and Always

Foodborne illnesses strike 76 million Americans each year, with 300,000 people hospitalized and 5,000 deaths, according to School of Nursing Health Studies associate professor Laura Anderko. With Thanksgiving around the corner, a few precautions can prevent dinner from turning into a food poisoning outbreak, the food safety expert says. But while cooks can take preventative measures for the upcoming holiday, food safety issues are not limited to Thanksgiving. Anderko, a member of Georgetown’s Food Safety Working Group, talks turkey, lax government regulations and what the public doesn’t know about food production.

Q. What are some precautions we should take when preparing Thanksgiving for our families?

A. There are four key things to think about when cooking for a large crowd – clean, separate, cook and chill.

Clean means wash your hands and surfaces often. Particularly with fowl, salmonella contamination is a concern. Separate means don’t cross-contaminate – cut raw meats and vegetables on separate boards. With cooking, you need to make sure you’re heating food to the proper temperature. Turkeys have that pop-up thermometer, but it’s always a good idea to double check. For chilling, make sure you refrigerate leftovers promptly – don’t let them sit out for hours.

Q. Do foodborne illness cases tend to increase this time of year?

A. I don’t know that we see spikes in food poisoning around this time, but there is the potential for it because so many people are cooking at home. Obviously there are no regulations in your home like there are in restaurants.

Q. Tell us about the Food Safety Working Group at Georgetown. What are you trying to accomplish?

A. It’s a transdisciplinary group that began meeting in 2008. We have policymakers and folks from across the university campuses. We have proposals to look at food from farm to fork. One issue we’re concerned about is establishing surveillance of produce in the field so if there is a contamination, that food never makes it to market.

We’ve created systems that track, through computerized mechanisms in the field, produce that may be contaminated. Biologists, food scientists and public health professionals would use that information and work together to alert the production line before the food makes it to the supermarket shelf.

Q. Do you think that’s feasible, given what seems like a never-ending list of food recalls just this past year or two?

A. There are a lot of issues hampering such efforts. Unfortunately, in the last administration, there was a reduction in the number of inspectors. It was like having one city cop for all of Washington, D.C. You cannot possibly regulate and enforce food safety with a small number of inspectors.

Right now we track individual cases and outbreaks through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but food isn’t the jurisdiction of any one federal agency. Many agencies are involved in food safety in one way or another, but there hasn’t been an interagency mechanism for people to problem-solve across agencies.

Q. Is the country making any progress in protecting food safety?

A. President Obama did establish a federal Food Safety Working Group so the different agencies can coordinate. Some of the core principles include increasing the number of inspectors and improving response times by getting agency systems linked.

I think there has been progression, but that only deals with food from within the U.S.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. We import a lot of food items internationally and there are very few international trade food safety regulations. That’s why there’s lead in candy imported from Mexico and China. We need to look at opportunities to increase accountability on foreign food importers and create partnerships with other countries to have stronger food safety systems. But we’re not there – we’re not even close.

Q. What do events like the recent massive egg recall tell us about food safety precautions?

A. A lot of the problems can be traced to agribusiness practices. How agribusinesses run their farms, and the impact it can have on the public, is a very big deal.

For example, the fellow who owns the two Iowa egg farms that recalled 250 million eggs lends money to other egg companies in Ohio. Now a recall is happening there. A few farmers in Ohio put up $10,000 for their farms and this fellow put in $126 million into the farms. He’s hiding behind these other farmers because he has a long, long record of infractions.

Q. What can the people do to protect themselves from these food safety issues?

A. People need to educate themselves. If they knew about the risks and few regulations that come from confined agricultural feeding operations and large farming practices, I think people would be upset by it and change their behaviors. We like paying $1 for a hamburger, but there’s a price for that through contamination and illness. I think people are willing to spend more money to know that their food is safer.

Change can come from the public. When there were concerns over BPA bottles, within a couple months people could buy BPA-free baby bottles and water bottles – without any government intervention.

Q. What do you think people would be surprised to know about food safety in the U.S.?

A. While we may have food safety regulations in place, we don’t have the people power to enforce them. People think their food or water is protected, but don’t really understand the politics behind food safety – and there is a lot of politics behind food safety.

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