John Sofos

We are all familiar with various highly publicized outbreaks of microbial foodborne illness that have occurred in recent years. We have also noticed that transmission of pathogens has occurred recently through consumption of not only products of animal origin but also foods of plant origin.

Potential reasons for the increasing food safety concerns include changes in food production, processing, and distribution practices; increased international food trade; changing consumer needs and expectations for minimally processed and convenient food products; increased consumption of uncooked foods of plant origin; increases in world population and projected increases in worldwide meat consumption as societies become more affluent; higher numbers of consumers at risk for infection; emerging pathogens and microbial changes potentially associated with increased virulence and resistance to control or treatment; advances in microbial detection; limited food-handler and consumer education and training in proper food handling; and increased interest, awareness, and scrutiny by consumers, news media, and consumer advocate groups.

It is obvious that some of these challenges are more important than others. Thus, there is a need for prioritization and action based on solid knowledge generated through quality research.

Epidemiological data and surveillance estimates by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention indicate that as many as 40–60% of the outbreaks and cases of reported foodborne illness remain unresolved and with the etiologic agent unknown. Therefore, it should not be unexpected if additional agents of foodborne illness and new challenges and concerns are identified in the future. However, progress in development of methodologies of detection as well as in our understanding of the ecology of pathogens, based on solid knowledge generated through quality research, is needed before the role of other hazards in the safety of foods is determined.

Even though progress is being made in pathogen control, some pathogens will continue being of concern well into the future, considering that some of them (e.g., Salmonella) have been the target of control efforts for many decades but are still involved in large numbers of illnesses. Have we failed? It is difficult to determine this, especially since, with time, variables change, methodologies evolve, and resources and interests shift. On the other hand, perhaps we have prevented the situation from getting worse. Nevertheless, the situation needs to be improved, with efforts and activities based on solid knowledge generated through quality research.

Existing evidence indicates that most foodborne illness events are generally due to human error and mishandling of foods. Thus, there is a need for intensive efforts to educate food-handlers and consumers in food safety principles, as well as in specific food-handling practices. We need complete and routine implementation of HACCP concepts and principles throughout the food chain—HACCP implementation will not be complete until there is adequate training of those involved in its daily use.

It is also necessary to teach consumers the basics of proper cooking of animal foods, thorough washing of raw vegetables, separation of uncooked from ready-to-eat foods, and washing and sanitation of hands, cutting boards, knives, etc. At-risk individuals should be instructed to avoid or cook risky foods, and to avoid raw or unpasteurized foods.

Do we have enough knowledge available to develop and apply proper, practical, and easy-to-follow food-handling education programs for the public? We have a good grasp of basic principles, but we are still in need of data necessary to develop clear, practical, simple, and specific "how-to" messages for the general public, including those working in smaller retail and foodservice operations and those at risk for foodborne illness or caring for those at risk. Therefore, we need more and better food-handling education, plus in some cases applied research to be used in the development of simple and specific safe food-handling messages for the non-experts.

In addition, there are important issues to be addressed with knowledge generated through basic and applied research. We need to intensify our efforts; provide adequate resources to address the food safety research and education needs; use the available resources wisely; avoid emphasizing only certain challenges or areas of scientific interest, while ignoring or deemphasizing others; base our research and education goals and objectives on a logical framework; collaborate to set priorities and avoid unnecessary repetition in our accomplishments; disseminate existing knowledge properly and adequately; and train, adequately and properly, enough young persons to deal with present and future food safety challenges.

by John Sofos, Ph.D., a Fellow of IFT and Chair of the IFT Food Microbiology Div., is University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University, Fort Collins ([email protected]).