Many federal and local authorities govern the regulation of food safety in the US. However, three main agencies are responsible for food safety. These are: the US department of agriculture (USDA), the food safety and inspection service (FSIS) and the food and drug administration (FDA). The FSIS is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products and the FDA is responsible for virtually all other foods. The FDA provides a scientific and technical template, which is adopted by regional governments. Currently, about 80% of all states have food safety policies adopted from the FDA regulations.
The FSIS has inspectors working in meat, poultry, and processed egg establishments and it is tasked with enforcing the federal meat inspection law. It is tasked with inspecting animals before slaughter to ensure their health and the carcasses of the slaughtered animals. The agency is also tasked with inspecting all imported meat products into the United States.
There is a lot of pressure from the industry on the regulators, which affect the way they perform their work. Pressure from food manufacturers has forced many inspectors to change the policy for inspection. This is dangerous since the policy has been set up to protect the consumers from harmful products. This is usually a result of lack of support from the management of these agencies to their inspectors on the field.
Some states have their own inspection policies, which substitute USDA policies. These have sometimes been blamed on being less stringent and therefore exposing consumers to sub standard products. These policies however apply to products that are produced and consumed within the state. Some states have inspection policies that supplement rather than replace the USDA policies. Health departments also have a role in investigating food borne illnesses. This was the case when there was an e coli outbreak in 2006, which was present in processed spinach.
In the local scene, local laws govern restaurants and food retailers and enforcement is done by the local health departments. The health department is tasked with ensuring that the establishments are properly designed and that proper food handling techniques are employed. The health departments also certify the food handlers in these establishments.
How food borne illnesses occur
There numerous ways that can result in the contamination of food products resulting in food borne illnesses. The major pathogens known for causing food borne illnesses are norovirus, toxoplasma and salmonella. These pathogens can be introduced to foods at many stages. The major stages where contamination can take place are described below.
Contamination during production
This occurs where the food products are contaminated during their production. Non-organic food products are produced using a lot of fertilizers and pesticides. If contamination takes place during the production of food, it might cause food borne illnesses. Food safety regulators are tasked with ensuring that products do not contain harmful substances. If the residue of harmful products is above a certain level, the products are not allowed for sale to safeguard the consumers.
Contamination during processing
As happened in the 2006 outbreak of a harmful strain of E coli, contamination can take place in processing of the foods. In this particular case, the harmful strain was found in processed spinach. During processing, food products are usually prepared for sale to consumers. Chemicals such as preservatives are added to the food products to ensure they have a long shelf life. If this process is not managed properly, it can lead to introduction of pathogens, which may result in contamination. The processing of wet foods such as dairy products usually requires that they are packaged in airtight containers and stored at chilled temperatures. If there is, a problem with packaging, pathogens can also find their way into the food products. Dry food products usually require being stored in cool dry places. If moisture finds its way into the product, contamination can also take place.
Contamination during preparation
Contamination of food during preparation is the most common cause of food borne illnesses. This means that the food is contaminated in the hands of the consumer as they prepare. In order to reduce the chances for contamination during preparation, a few guidelines are recommended. The food preparation area must be kept clean at all times. The sink and working area must always be cleaned before food can be prepared. The utensils used must also be cleaned before use. The food handler must also ensure that they wash their hands with soap and water before touching food. If an individual is suffering from a communicable disease, it is advisable that they do not prepare food.
When preparing several types of foods, it is important to separate them to avoid cross contamination. For example, a chopping board and knife that have been used to cut meat should be cleaned properly first before using to cut vegetables. This is because meat can cause the contamination of the other foods. This step goes hand in hand with proper cooking. Meat should be cooked properly to ensure that the pathogens naturally present are destroyed before eating. This means that cooking meat usually takes a longer time. Raw milk should also be boiled before consumption to kill the pathogens present. Bacteria grow very quickly at room temperature. A food handler should ensure that any food leftovers are promptly chilled to prevent their contamination.
Lastly, the consumer should be prudent while purchasing food products. Most food products have a manufacturing date and a sell by date on the package. The consumer should check to ensure that the product is not expired and that the packaging is sealed and there is no visible defect with the product before purchase. Upon purchase, the consumer should ensure that they store the food products in the recommended conditions. On suspicion of food borne illness, a person should ensure they report to the health authorities so that it can be contained.
Benedict, J. (2011). Poisoned: The true story of the deadly E. coli outbreak that changed the way Americans eat. Buena Vista, VA: Inspire Books.