If Americans needed a reminder not to take food safety for granted, they've gotten it. A massive recall last month of 19 million pounds of ground beef--the second-largest recall in U.S. history--was followed last week by a recall of romaine lettuce.
Both were due to E. coli contamination. At least 28 people in five states became ill after eating the contaminated beef; at least 29 reportedly became ill in Washington state from the lettuce.
These two incidents came on the heels of a recall of salmonella-tainted cantaloupes in May and of public warnings the previous month about an illegally produced soft cheese that was also found to be contaminated with salmonella. The cantaloupes were blamed for about three dozen cases of illness in the U.S. and Canada; the cheese was linked to 50 cases of food poisoning.
But health and food safety experts say these illnesses and recalls don't mean our food supply is more riddled with problems than in years past. Rather, they say, these events are a wake-up call to people who let their guard down when preparing and eating food.
"These incidents show there are significant gaps" in our safety net, says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the food safety program for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., consumer watchdog group.
Unfortunately, while sanitary conditions in the U.S. have improved, no system is foolproof.
"As long as we have harmful microorganisms being carried by animals, and food handlers who may be infected by various pathogens and don't wash their hands, we're going to see food-borne illnesses," says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement at the University of Georgia in Griffin.
The consequences can be devastating. Although most of the estimated 76 million Americans stricken with food-borne illnesses each year experience relatively mild symptoms, 325,000 of them are sick enough to be hospitalized, and 5,000 people die each year from unsafe food, according to government figures. Otherwise healthy people may develop a mild case of diarrhea or nausea from tainted food, but for pregnant women, the frail elderly, young children and people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes or AIDS, food-borne illnesses can cause kidney failure, paralysis, miscarriage and death.
Among the more common food-borne pathogens are bacteria such as salmonella, campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, Vibrio and E. coli 0157:H7.
There are a host of ways these microbes find their way to the nation's dinner tables: Produce may be watered or washed with feces-contaminated water, some animal carcasses are inadvertently infected with microbes during processing, seafood may swim in sewage-infested waters, or food may be improperly handled.
In one recent incident in Georgia, several hundred people developed flu-like symptoms after eating commercially prepared cakes decorated by a woman with long artificial nails who had neglected to wash her hands properly. (The microbes had become trapped underneath her nails.) Germs hiding in ventilation ducts during renovations at a hot dog manufacturing plant were responsible for an outbreak of Listeria in 1998-99, in which 21 people died.
In the case of the tainted ground beef, experts believe the meat was infected with E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria from manure-contaminated water. Federal and state officials are investigating the source of the recent lettuce contamination.
U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors normally do random spot checks for the presence of E. coli bacteria at meat processing plants, and rely on companies to do their own regular testing. "But you can never take enough samples to have an absolute guarantee unless you check the entire lot, which isn't economically feasible," said Peter J. Slade of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, which is part of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Summit-Argo, Ill.
Still, this incident prompted calls from consumer activists to tighten up plant inspection systems. "Tests of E. coli should be done routinely by the USDA, not just randomly," says Patty Lovera, deputy director of the energy and environment program at Public Citizen, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C.
In the meantime, consumers need to watch out for known hazards by staying abreast of government alerts, as well as taking precautions in the kitchen to protect themselves from food-borne bugs. Cooking meats and shellfish to 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. Eggs, which can be a breeding ground for salmonella, should also be cooked thoroughly, as should anything containing eggs, like French toast.