Suspected and real outbreaks of illnesses due to food contamination are on the rise in the U.S. Different government agencies are tasked with keeping an eye on food processing, packaging, and distribution. The federal government (FDA) works to reduce the number of food-borne illness across the nation with inspectors stationed at non-meat, food processing plants and agricultural sites. The USDA is responsible for regulating meat, poultry and egg products in the country. And your local public health inspectors are tasked with keeping a keen eye on restaurants and other local food services, monitoring and grading the way they store, handle, clean, and serve food to the community. 

Preventing food poisoning is a huge task for any organization, and the industry depends largely on self-regulation to keep food products and services safe - knowing that one outbreak of a contaminated food product (which can result in widespread illness and multiple fatalities) can be enough to cripple sales, destroy large inventories, deflate customer confidence, and wreak havoc on the financial stability of a company.

How Food Can Become Contaminated

According to the CDC , an estimated 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) will get sick due to a foodborne pathogen or unknown agent while 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year of foodborne diseases.  A foodborne illness or food poisoning can be caused by spoiled or contaminated food. These contaminants include bacteria, viruses, parasites and non-biologicals that are spread from the soil, machinery, during food processing, and from workers that are handling the food. An employee that comes to work with a virus that goes airborne or bacteria that is spread from unclean hands (especially when working with poultry) are the most common causes of food contamination by workers.

The top 5 pathogens that infiltrate our nation's food supply include:

  1. Norovirus - spread by hands, airborne, or clothing of infected food workers
  2. Salmonella - from undercooked meat or cross-contaminated produce
  3. Coli  - deadly bacteria from food, water, or human contact
  4. Listeria - cross-contamination from water, soil and bio-fertilizers
  5. Staphylococcus aureus - bacteria spread by unclean hands

The mode of transfer of bacteria and other illness-causing pathogens can take many routes once the contaminated food is touched. An employee can transfer that bacteria to their hair, face, work surfaces, the food they're serving or to the serving glasses or utensils. It is recommended by the CDC that all food service workers use disposable gloves and properly wash their hands in the workplace.

How Food Workers Become Ill

The same bacteria, viruses, and unknown agents that sicken the consumer will also pose a threat to workers in the food processing and services industries. The HACCP , or the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system is meant to set forth controls that reduce the hazards associated with food processing - for both the workers and the public. Today, many companies in the food sector are training in-plant employees in HACCP protocols to identify and control the hazards associated with handling possibly contaminated food.

Many of the factors that cause workers to become ill in the workplace can be dramatically reduced by providing workers with the right personal protective clothing and equipment. Here are a list of common workplace illnesses or injury that are common to food handlers:

  • hand to mouth contact with pathogens
  • eye and respiratory hazards
  • splash contact with cleaning chemicals
  • noise-induced hearing loss
  • slips and falls on wet surfaces

PPE for Safe Food Handling

When proper food production and safety rules are in place, many of the above employee incidents and food contamination problems are greatly reduced. As a matter of fact, a company's productivity and profitability can be directly related to a healthy workplace and a safe work environment. Food production is quite often fast paced, noisy, and filled with potential hazards - especially around food processing equipment.

Serious workplace injuries can negatively affect the entire production floor, and a foodborne illness outbreak connected with an individual food processor can be financially devastating. Here are some of the negative repercussions that can affect the business side of a food sector operation:

  • Added medical expenses and workers compensation
  • OSHA-demanded safety and procedural overhauls
  • An increase in insurance premiums
  • Loss of production and inventory 
  • A damaged company image and bad online reviews
  • Expenses for public relation campaigns

Safe food production, handling, and serving practices are the foundation for preventing food poisoning, workplace injury or public illness. The selection of personal protective equipment or PPE to provide a barrier between contaminants, food, workers and consumers are crucial in the food processing industry. Since most food handling operations are done manually by workers here is a list of PPE that should be made available to all food handlers to protect food from unwanted contaminants and employees from injury or illness:

  • Disposable Gloves - powder free, nitrile or vinyl that rise above the wrists
  • Hair net, bouffant cap, beard net - to provide full hair coverage
  • Reusable or Disposable Uniforms - disposable, low lint, and with light splash protection for kitchen workers
  • Chemical resistant aprons - when working with oils, greases, or strong cleaning solutions
  • Arm covers - production or assembly line employees
  • Slip resistant shoes or shoe covers - with non-skid bottoms, closed toe
  • Work gloves - for stocking and heavy material handling
  • Rubber apron - when hot water and detergent contact is required
  • Cut-resistant gloves - anyone working with knives or meat slicers
  • Heat resistant gauntlet style gloves - for handling hot materials
  • Safety glasses - when working with chemicals such as sanitizers or degreasers

Establish Good Glove-wearing Practices

If gloves are not properly used in the food handling industry, they can become a source of contamination. Gloves are preferred over bare hands when handling food to protect both person and process, but they can become contaminated just as quickly as a worker's hands will. Food handlers should always wash their hands before donning gloves and practice these glove hygiene safety tips:

  • gloves must fit proper, snug but not too tight where they might rip
  • when employees change gloves, they should wash or sanitize their hands
  • gloves should be changed often and workers should work from 'clean to dirty' surfaces
  • a good rule-of-thumb is to change gloves every 4 hours when performing the same task
  • if a worker touches anything other than food or a sterilize surface, the gloves should be changed

International Enviroguard produces a wide range of protective clothing to prevent food poisoning, keep food industry workers safe from contamination and the consumer safe from foodborne illnesses.