SAN FRANCISCO — The nation's food supply is increasingly vulnerable to a wide variety of harmful bacteria, some of which have been linked to thousands of serious illnesses and more than 100 deaths in the past few months, according to federal health officials who outlined plans to combat the problem at a conference on food safety here.
"The dimensions are staggering: There are 80 million cases of food-borne enteric infection in the United States each year," said Sanford A. Miller, director, Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "The costs of this problem run into the hundreds of million dollars and make (this type of disease) one of the more important (illnesses facing the nation)."
In fact, the threat to food posed by bacteria and pathogens is such that the FDA announced it will make tracking these potentially harmful microorganisms a top priority.
Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA who spoke at this two-day gathering insist that the nation has the world's safest food. Yet there was a consensus that more attention needs to be directed toward fighting the rapidly increasing numbers of food-related illnesses caused by salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, camphylobacter and others.
"We have established new goals and will place greater emphasis on detecting microbiological bacteria," Miller said. He claimed that the changing of priorities is overdue and that federal resources directed toward exhaustive reviews of food additives, such as aspartame, may have been ill advised.
"The problem in the future is not chemicals (in food). We have spent a fortune keeping certain chemicals out of food. Yet carcinogens in food have played a trivial role in the total number of cancers in the United States. In fact, some (food) additives are cancer prohibiters, Miller said. "While still being aware of chemicals used in food, we need a new direction where we concentrate on microorganisms."
This reinvigorated federal effort targets bacteria that attack the gastrointestinal system and cause numerous ill effects, including nausea, fever and diarrhea in various degrees of severity. The action is due in part to recent studies that found that a startlingly large number of people suffer from diarrhea, which is most likely caused by contaminants in improperly prepared food.
Diseases Cause Economic Losses
The number of diarrheal diseases linked to food in the United States is thought to be as high as 80 million cases annually. The economic losses sustained by these sometimes fatal illnesses may amount to more than $150 billion in lost wages and medical costs, according to Douglas L. Archer, deputy director, FDA's division of microbiology.
"Diarrheal disease is increasing for reasons we don't fully understand. . . . We need to break the myth that diarrheal disease is only a nuisance. It could be life threatening," Archer said. "Pathogens (which prompt diarrhea) are believed to present the greatest hazard to our food supply."
In addition to the commonly known bacteria and viruses that may enter the food system, both Archer and Miller said that some presently innocuous pathogens may eventually evolve into life-threatening contaminants. As a result, health officials throughout the country are hard-pressed to prepare for a widespread contamination outbreak when the source and bacteria can change with each new incident.
For instance, Archer discussed a number of food-borne epidemics that illustrate the FDA's frustration. One particular case occurred in the Seattle area in 1982. A type of Escherichia coli never seen before in the United States was diagnosed as the cause of a number of severe illnesses.
Permanent Kidney Damage
The initial symptom of the E. coli was diarrhea lasting a few days. After 48 hours, those infected began to defecate blood, Archer said. Fifteen percent of those infected with this E. coli incurred permanent kidney damage.
An epidemiological investigation found that the source of the bacteria was ground hamburger served at a fast food restaurant. Officials are still uncertain how the bug got into the cattle that were the source of the meat. Shortly after the Seattle epidemic, this particular strain of E. coli was found throughout the United States.
The quick spread of this bacteria is part of a syndrome that Archer described as the "tropicalization of the United States" or the globalization of disease. Specifically, health officials believe that bacteria once limited to certain areas of the world, primarily underdeveloped countries with poor sanitation practices, have become universal with the increased frequency of air travel and food exports.
"There are newly emerging pathogens and new bugs we've never seen before. We're hit with them right and left. Why all of a sudden? There's no answer; they're just there," Archer said.