It has been a long time since we measured time by food. Strawberry season or apple season or hunting season is rarely how we express our place on a calendar. The upside is that we live in a mechanized world where almost any food is available 24/7, 365 days of the year. The down side is we value the freshness and the unique terroir of local foods less. Once, I relished that first sweet strawberry of the season. The reality is I can still enjoy a strawberry, albeit a less authentic replica from somewhere else.
This is not completely a bad thing. It distributes nutrition and makes us less geographically dependent on soils that may be deficient in a needed trace mineral. Rarely do we see diseases such as iodine deficiency from the “goiter belt” as we once did. Of course, there is also much to be said of eating a fresh strawberry in October.
The fact is, we are dependent on a highly complex food supply. This includes the actions of unknown growers, companies and processes to keep our food safe. These people and processes may be thousands of miles away. This can increase opportunity for contamination from growing, handling and processing. Food may be handled by many people before your hands finally cook and serve it.
Fruits and vegetables can be contaminated by many sources, such as birds or other animals, flood waters that include contaminants, manure, or farm workers who may not practice proper hand washing.
Approximately one in six American gets sick each year from foodborne illness. Recalls for all products (including nonfood) increased 33% from 2012 to 2017. Food recalls increased 10% that same period. However, yearly data from the FDA shows recalls declined significantly from 2017 (3,609 cases) to 2018 (1,935 cases). One reason for this precipitous drop may be due to the Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted in 2011, that gave the FDA more power in preventing food safety problems. It is only the last couple of years, for example, that produce growers have been receiving specific training on how to keep fresh produce safe when growing, harvesting, packing, storing and transporting.
Also, the science has just become much more sophisticated. The FDA, USDA and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention now uses a technology called whole genome sequencing which enables them to discover the source of foodborne illness faster and more efficiently. When a person contracts a foodborne illness, scientists can compare a sample of the pathogen with those in the database to find its exact or closest genetic match and determine which food or facility caused the illness.
Recalls typically fit into one of three categories: pathogen contamination, physical contamination or misbranding. Pathogen contamination happens when a disease-causing microorganism such as E. Coli or Salmonella infiltrates a food item. Physical contaminants are foreign object such as plastic, glass or metal. Misbranding can be undeclared allergens such as nuts or milk, food additives or colorings or the wrong label on a product.
As our food becomes more available, our supply becomes convoluted. The FSMA is needed to keep us safe. The Produce Safety Alliance working with many agencies and authorities including Cornell Cooperative Extensions have been working to help train farmers about practices to keep the food supply safe. This, along with the other components of the FSMA may just be the start of fewer recalls and a safer food supply.
Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and the agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson county. Contact her at 315-788-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.