First Defense Against Foodborne Illnesses

This year alone, hundreds of people became ill and have even died from tainted romaine lettuce, cantaloupe, and spinach. E.Coli and Listeria, two of the most common foodborne illnesses have been traced from California to Ohio and come from contaminated soil or feces. When we eat fruits and vegetables, it doesn’t often cross our minds that we could be consuming dangerous bacteria and pathogens that could make us and our families sick–much less that they can be deadly. Farmworkers, as well as other consumers, are at risk for becoming sick. Yet, one program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has previously dealt with identifying these types of pathogens in our food, will no longer exist after December 2012.

A recent Food Safety News article explained that the Obama Administration will not continue to fund that USDA program, which is known as the Microbiological Data Program (MDP). The $4.5 million program is now believed to be outside the department it was previously funded through, the Agricultural Marketing Service, which is responsible for quality grade standards for food, and therefore not eligible for continued funding. Despite the funding cuts, the USDA has negotiated to continue the produce testing program until December. This relatively small program screens high-risk fresh fruits and vegetables every year, such lettuce, tomatoes, and melons, among others for potentially dangerous pathogens such as E. Coli or Salmonella. If samples test positive for bacteria, it can prompt nationwide recalls and keep contaminated produce from reaching consumers or grocery stores, preventing unnecessary illnesses and even death.

When the budget for 2013 was being prepared, was food safety not a priority? Public health officials and food safety advocates have argued that getting rid of the program would leave the country without a crucial tool to investigate the deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness. Although the USDA has obtained an extension, this is only a temporary solution. The government should give priority to getting a real, long-term solution. According to another Food Safety News article, from 2009 to 2012, the Microbiological Data Program found Salmonella 100 times, E. Coli twice, and Listeria eight times.

Interestingly enough, a simple procedure further ‘up stream’ can prevent such diseases from contaminating our food in the first place. If farmworkers wash their hands frequently, with portable water, soap, and paper towels, contamination could often be prevented.  In our experience working with farmworkers, they often report that it is uncommon for there to be bathrooms and hand-washing facilities within reasonable distance from where they are working.

This same action, hand-washing before and after using the bathroom, as well as before and after eating, smoking, or chewing gum, can also protect farmworkers from pesticide poisoning. Having clean water, soap, and paper towels available in the fields while farmworkers work not only protects them, but the consumers as well. Farmworkers could be first in the line of defense against foodborne illnesses. To do this effectively, however, growers and farm owners need to understand the importance of training their workers on these steps and providing adequate hand-washing facilities. Training farmworkers and providing them with the tools to protect themselves, as well as those around them, can make a huge difference.

It is yet to be determined what the consequences will be from the elimination of the Microbiological Data Program, but it is clear that simple actions, like hand-washing, can make a huge difference, in more ways than one.

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