Topic updated: February 2013

Food Safety

It has been estimated that 24 to 81 million cases of foodborne diarrheal disease occur annually in the United States. The cost of medical care and lost productivity due to acute disease is estimated between $5 billion and $17 billion. This does not include other factors such as the cost of respiratory symptoms or chronic disease, death, or the costs to industry through lost business, product recalls, seizure, destruction of contaminated foods, and litigation. If these were added, the costs of foodborne illnesses would be even higher.

Most food scientists and health experts agree that illnesses caused by foodborne pathogenic microorganisms present the most serious food safety problem today. Yet, many consumers and others who handle food on a regular basis seem to take a casual approach to microbiological causes of foodborne illnesses. Other more dramatic threats, such as potentially harmful pesticide residues, may be given more media coverage, credit, and resources than they deserve.

The reason for this discrepancy in what gets people's attention can be explained by what we know about how people perceive risks. People tend to view as "less risky" those situations that are voluntary, familiar, not fatal, old risk, known to science, or controllable. On the other hand, people view as "more risky," those situations with the opposite characteristics. Thus, a food handling situation that is voluntary, familiar, and so on, would seem to pose a much smaller threat than the use of pesticides in the production of vegetables bought at the supermarket. For the consumer, exposure to potential pesticide residues is certainly not voluntary or familiar. Use of pesticides could be perceived as leading to fatality, appears to be a newer risk, presents many scientific unknowns, and the threat cannot be easily controlled by consumers through washing, cooking, or other home treatments.

In spite of the lack of importance sometimes given to microorganisms as causal agents in foodborne illnesses, microorganisms do represent a significant threat to the U.S. population. Both home-prepared and food service-prepared foods contribute to foodborne illness incidents. In addition, food processing errors also contribute occasionally to outbreaks of disease:

Leading factors contributing to foodborne illness out breaks, 1983-1987.

Karen P. Penner, Extension Specialist, Food Science, Kansas State University from the National Food Safety Database.

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