Irradiation, AGP Ban Would Cut Foodborne Infections

US - Dr Dennis Maki of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health offers his recommendations for cutting foodborne disease in the US. These include irradiation of food and an international moratorium on animal feeds that include antibiotic growth promoters (AGPs).
calendar icon 4 March 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

It started with Escherichia coli-contaminated spinach two years ago; then came the salmonella-infected peppers, and most recently, a contaminated peanut butter that killed nine people.

An article in the Boston Health News Examiner says the bitter truth is such outbreaks could have been prevented had the food industry adhered to a much-criticised method of killing germs in many processed foods by zapping them with radiation, a researcher said.

Routine irradiation of foods, including poultry products at high risk for contamination with pathogens, could prevent up to one million cases bacterial food infection every year, said Dr Dennis Maki of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

"I believe it is time to launch a major effort to gain public acceptance of irradiation of high-risk foods. It is time to stop reliving history," he wrote in a perspective published online in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The method has been widely endorsed by international health bodies, including the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture and the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food.

Yet irradiation has not been widely embraced in the US. Critics argue that the cost of the technology may not justify the perceived benefits, and it has been beset by safety issues of radiation and complaints that it may be abused to cover up the food industry's hygiene problems.

Dr Maki lamented the prevalence of foodborne diseases in a developed country like the US despite intensive regulation of food production and distribution. Each year, foodborne diseases cause 350,000 hospitalizations, 5,000 deaths and $7 billion health care costs in the country.

For instance, E. coli outbreak in green leafy vegetables has resurfaced 26 times since 1993, and every year 110,000 people are infected by the bacterium and 50 of them die, he said.

Salmonella outbreaks are not isolated cases as well. Before the ongoing outbreak of peanut products, which is the subject of a congressional investigation, a similar case also surfaced on jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico.

"Enormous shifts in food production during the past half century underlie the increased risk and complexity of foodborne disease," Dr Maki explained. "Today, virtually all food consumed domestically is grown and processed on a vast industrial scale or, increasingly, is imported."

Yet this reality is something that the US has to contend with. Even if millions of farm workers will be sent to the field to produce food, costs would be enormous and it would be impossible to feed 300 million Americans, Dr Maki told Boston Health News Examiner.

"Efficient, industrialized production of huge quantities of food is an inescapable necessity to avoid food shortages and global famine. The challenge is to enhance the quality and safety of industrially produced food," he added.

He outlined several steps to improve food safety of the current system, including enhancement of current standards like the USDA's Pathogen Reduction, Hazard Analysis, and Critical Control Point programme (HACCP), and CDC's FoodNet and PulseNet surveillance programmes, including:

  • Monitoring the production and processing of food, including imported food
  • Inspecting food producers and processors by state agencies
  • Developing rapid and more sensitive methods for detecting food pathogens
  • Requiring bar codes to food products for immediate tracing to a specific farm
  • International moratorium on animal feeds that use growth-promoting antibiotics
  • Eliminating unnecessary use of antimicrobial agents in human and veterinary medicine, and
  • Strict adherence to hygienic food-preparation practices
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