Get to know these two food safety hazards
Listeria and salmonella might get the public attention and news headlines, but they are just two of many threats to food safety. At a conference last week, experts highlighted a pair of lesser-publicized risks: Cyclosporiasis and radiological hazards.
Three experts – doctors John Marcy, Jennifer McEntire and Palmer Orlandi – discussed the two threats at the Food Safety Summit in Baltimore. Here are some takeaways from that conversation:
Cyclospora: A reemerging hazard
“If you’re like me, you’ve been in the food safety industry for a long time,” said Marcy, a poultry processing specialist, “This one doesn’t come up all that often, which is good.”
Caused by a parasite, cyclosporiasis first came to the public’s attention after a 1990 outbreak, the first reported outbreak in the United States. Some research on the disease continued, but Orlandi said cyclosporiasis dropped off the public health safety radar in the early 2000s.
It reemerged last year, when more than 600 cases of cyclosporiasis was recorded in 25 states—a “wakeup call,” according to Orlandi, for the industry to move forward with more advanced research techniques and preventative measures.
One of these techniques is whole genome sequencing, something Orlandi said “is a long way off, but it’s something to be considered.” Because the cyclospora infection takes up to two weeks to mature and hosts to show symptoms like explosive diarrhea, it’s hard for scientists to obtain samples to study. Orlandi stated that a solution to this problem may be whole genome sequencing, which can help scientists develop defenses against the disease without waiting on samples from infected hosts.
Other preventative measures include better irrigation and spraying practices on produce, multi-stage water filtration in fields, and limited handling from growers.
Radiological hazards: A modern threat
According to McEntire, vice president and chief science officer of The Acheson Group, “radiological has a lot of people scratching their heads.”
This may be because it is a fairly new food safety issue. Some people first heard about radiological hazards when those hazards were included in the 2009 Food Safety Modernization Act, but it was the failure of Japan’s Fukushima power plant in the March 2011 tsunami that really brought them into the limelight.
When water stores near the Fukushima plant—some of which were used in the country’s food supply—showed signs of radiological contamination, McEntire said this threat was elevated from “a theoretical kind of hazard.”
“This is something that there was testing in the food supply done in the wake of this event,” McEntire said, “and radioactivity was detected in foods…water being the vehicle for the radiological hazard.” After Fukushima, radiological contamination became a real possibility.
To avoid this type of contamination, McEntire said food production facilities and businesses should be aware of their proximity to nuclear power plants, and the possibility of their water supply being affected if an event similar to Fukushima occurred.
McEntire also warned that well water in certain areas of the U.S. also may contain higher levels of radionuclides. She said businesses should be aware of not only their proximity to and use of this well water, but also of their suppliers’ as well.
“There should be some data out there that you can leverage to help you form your decision as to whether this hazard is reasonably likely to occur,” said McEntire, stating that the FDA offers comprehensive testing and results on its website. McEntire also lists The Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors and the Environmental Protection Agency as resources to help businesses test for radioactive materials in their food supply.
Exploring these lesser-known risks makes for a more educated—and more alert—industry, keeping both cyclospora and radiological hazards out of the news cycle now and in the future.