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May 21, 2001 -- From the time you wake up until you fall into bed, you engage in activities that can enhance your health or increase your risk for disease. But there is one activity so universally indulged in, so intimately tied to sustenance, and so directly related to health and illness, and it happens right under your nose -- quite literally: eating food.

But a lot of people get sick from eating food. An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne diseases occur each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.

"Food safety is an important public health issue for the simple reason that all of us consume food," says William Schaffner, MD, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. "Everyone's grandmother knows that food can be a source of both nourishment and pleasure -- and can also make you sick."

The great majority of food poisonings are mild, causing symptoms for only a day or two. But some cases are more serious: CDC estimates there are 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths related to foodborne diseases each year. The most severe cases tend to occur in the very old, the very young, those who have an illness that weakens their bodies' natural defense -- their immune system function -- and in healthy people exposed to a very high dose of a foodborne "bug," according to the CDC.

For these reasons, food safety and the effort to eradicate foodborne illness have for years been a focus of public health activity. And a number of frightening diseases that have emerged recently -- specifically the so-called mad cow disease -- have heightened concern about the safety or availability of food.

In this and related articles to come, WebMD will outline prominent food safety issues and concerns, highlight government and scientific efforts aimed at making food safe, and offer practical tips to help you prepare and serve food safely.

Food Safety: Not an Easy Task

Public health experts tell WebMD that one prominent feature of modern life -- global travel and commerce -- has made food safety exponentially more important and more difficult.

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