Foodborne Illness Prevention for Manufacturers: A Food Industry Priority and Public Health Concern
Each year, thousands of individuals suffer physical harm due to food poisoning caused by foodborne illnesses. With numerous parties involved in food production, this means there are numerous points along the chain of production and distribution where infections can occur and spread to the community.
Not only does this pose serious health risks for individual consumers, but it also presents costly consequences for food industry companies in terms of reputational damage, lost profits, and litigation.
In this article, we discuss legal ramifications of foodborne illnesses and the key mitigation and safety methods that can promote foodborne illness prevention for manufacturers and the community at large.
What is a Foodborne Illness?
A foodborne illness is caused by the consumption of any food or beverage that has been contaminated with pathogenic organisms (like bacteria, viruses, or parasites) or chemicals (like toxins or metals) that make people sick. As noted by the Minnesota Department of Health, some foodborne illnesses can also spread via contact with animals or their environment and even through person-to-person spread.
Some of the most common pathogenic organisms associated with foodborne illnesses and infections include:
- Campylobacteriosis (Campylobacter)
- Cryptosporidiosis (Cryptosporidium)
- Cyclosporiasis (Cyclospora spp.)
- Escherichia coli O157:H7 Infection (E. coli O157) and Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)
- Giardiasis (Giardia)
- Listeriosis (Listeria monocytogenes)
- Norovirus Infection (aka Norwalk virus, calicivirus, viral gastroenteritis)
- Salmonellosis (Salmonella)
- Scombroid Fish Poisoning
- Shigellosis (Shigella)
- Toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii)
- Vibrio Infection (Vibrio parahaemolyticus)
- Yersiniosis (Yersinia species)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), chemicals that are commonly linked to foodborne illnesses include heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Foodborne Illnesses
Signs and symptoms of foodborne illness typically last anywhere from 1 to 7 days, and the incubation period (the time between a person's first exposure to a contaminant and the onset of their symptoms) can range from as little as a few hours to as much as one week.
Often mistaken as the "stomach flu" or "24 hour bug," foodborne illness typically leads to signs and symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, fever, fatigue, and joint pain or back pain.
Foods Associated with Foodborne Illness
Virtually any food or beverage can be a source of foodborne illness, especially if that food is touched or handled by anyone who is ill. However, some of the more common foods linked to prior outbreaks include:
- Raw meat and poultry, raw eggs, raw shellfish, and unpasteurized milk and dairy products
- Fresh, frozen, and/or canned fruits and vegetables (produce is often exposed to animal waste in the form of fertilizer, or could be washed with unclean water), and especially raw sprouts, which are grown in conditions that are highly conducive to microbial growth
- Unpasteurized fruit juices or cider
- Raw flour
Consuming uncooked or undercooked foods can increase the risk of a foodborne illness, since the cooking process is often sufficient to kill and destroy microorganisms that might otherwise cause a person to get sick.
The Impact of Foodborne Illnesses in the United States
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 6 people (48 million Americans) get sick from a foodborne illness every year in the United States. Of these, 128,000 end up hospitalized due to their illness and as many as 3,000 individuals will die from related complications.
The CDC has kept track of every reported multi-state foodborne illness outbreak since 2006. Some national examples from 2023 alone include a listeria outbreak linked to "Soft Serve on the Go" ice cream cups, a salmonella outbreak linked to ground beef, and an outbreak of hepatitis A linked to frozen strawberries.
In documenting these outbreaks, the CDC rightly notes that with any foodborne illness, "the true number of sick people is likely much higher than the number reported" given that many people recover from foodborne illnesses without ever seeking medical care nor being tested for any specific pathogen. For the same reason, outbreaks may "not be limited to the states with known illnesses."
In terms of economic costs, foodborne illnesses cost the United States more than $15.6 billion each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Costs to individual companies are also great. With these statistics in mind, there is little doubt that foodborne illness is a significant public health burden—and one that is largely preventable.
What Industries Contribute to the Spread of Foodborne Illnesses?
Foodborne pathogen prevention for manufacturers is an economic, public health, and food safety issue that impacts many industries because, as mentioned, virtually any and every industry linked to food production can contribute to unintentional pathogenic spread. Industries commonly linked to foodborne illness outbreaks include:
- Manufacturing, including agrochemicals and farm machinery production
- Food processing
- Wholesale and food distribution, including transportation and warehousing
- Food retail, including grocery stores, public markets, and farmer's markets
- Food services, including catering
- Research and development
At any point in the food production chain, from growth and harvesting to packaging and distribution, a pathogenic contaminant can find its way into foods or beverages—which means that any and all stakeholders in the U.S. food industry should care greatly about preventing foodborne illness.
"Strengthening The Food Safety System from Farm to Table": Introducing the FSMA
According to the USDA, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is a law that amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and was enacted in January 2011. The FSMA enables the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to "better protect public health by strengthening the food safety system from farm to table."
This legislation emphasizes prevention of foodborne illness outbreaks and is made up of seven "foundational" rules or regulations that are intended to guide food manufacturers and promote public safety. An example of a foundational rule as defined by the FSMA is Produce Safety Rule (21 CFR 112), which establishes a set of "minimum standards required for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables intended for human consumption."
The passing of the FSMA also gave rise to what is known as HARPC, or “Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls." Under HARPC, every food manufacturer, processor, packer, and storage facility is required to uphold a variety of regulations that are explicitly intended to prevent foodborne illness. These regulations include the following:
- Identification of food safety and adulteration hazards associated with their foods and processes
- Implementation of controls to minimize the hazards
- Verification that control measures are working properly
- Design and implementation of corrective actions to address any deviations or control failures that might arise in food safety
Every aspect of a manufacturer's HARPC plan must be properly documented, periodically reviewed, and continually maintained, and must conform to the established standards set by the FSMA regulations. Adherence to these steps should do more than protect consumers—it should also offer essential legal protection food manufacturers.
How Can Stakeholders in the Food Industry Protect Themselves and Avoid Common Mistakes?
Of course, even with the best intentions to abide by local and federal food safety regulations, mistakes can and do happen within the food industry, and these mistakes ultimately can lead to foodborne illness outbreaks. In addition to causing human suffering, such outbreaks can lead to serious financial and legal repercussions for food industry stakeholders.
So, beyond adhering to rules and regulations set by FSMA and related legislature, there are a variety of steps and initiatives that food industry members can take to protect themselves. Examples include:
- "Test-and-hold" programs, which identify contaminated foods and prevent them from getting to the market
- The use of remote and/or onsite food and production audits (both internal and third-party directed) to track and reduce bacterial load
- Environmental modifications, including the installation of germicidal ultraviolet lights or temperature and humidity sensors
- Proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to maintain worker safety and prevent cross-contamination (for many members of the food industry, high-quality disposable PPE serves as an ideal option for protecting against microscopic particles, liquid splashes, and even blood penetration)
- Establishing food safety as a part of the organization's culture (e.g., emphasizing thorough and regular personnel training on food safety standards, PPE use and disposal, workflow protocols, company values, etc.)
- Having the systems (and awareness) in place to act as soon as possible whenever early warning signs of a foodborne illness outbreak becomes evident
Know Where Bacteria Thrive
Ever wonder which environmental conditions are well-suited for the growth of bacteria? According to SafeFood.eu, a European food safety agency, four key conditions include:
- Warmth: the so-called "danger zone" temperature range for optimal bacterial growth is between 5°C and 63°C (41°F to 145°F)
- Food: as mentioned, bacteria particularly love dairy and animal products
- Water: bacteria seek out and love moisture from "wet" foods such as soups, sauces, dressings, and sandwich fillings
- Time: it doesn't take long; a single bacterium can go from one to over two million in just seven hours!
Foodborne pathogen prevention in production and manufacturing is a critical issue for food businesses and consumers alike. Yet despite best efforts to prevent foodborne illnesses, several thousand Americans fall ill every year due to consuming contaminated foods or beverages.
Understanding your industry's risks and mitigating them appropriately is essential for protecting your bottom line. Be sure to establish yourself as a leader in your industry by ensuring your team has access to premier personal protective equipment that supports optimal workflow, comfort, and safety.