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Food Safety: Not an Easy Task continued...

"In a world where the borders are no longer well defined, how do you standardize regulations so that the food on our table is safe, even though it may come from parts of the world where standards vary?" says Karen Becker, DVM, of the Office of International and Refugee Health in the Department of Health and Human Services.

And it prompts one fundamental question: Can people reasonably expect the food they buy to be safe?

"The answer is both a resounding yes and a resounding no," says Schaffner. "There is no doubt that we in the U.S. enjoy the best record of food safety of any nation in the world. Despite this, our food is not perfectly safe -- and far from it."

And now, Schaffner says, because of international commerce there is an abundance of foods and vegetables available year-round that did not come from California, Texas, or Florida.

"They are coming from Mexico, South America, and Central America," he says. "That is one reason that food safety is back high on the agenda of public health."

Common Food Poisoning Culprits

So what are the prominent foodborne bugs that trigger illness?

The CDC says that the most commonly recognized food bugs are the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella , and E. coli. and a group of viruses known as Norwalk viruses.

  • Campylobacter causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps and is the most commonly identified bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the world. These bacteria live in the intestines of healthy birds, and most raw poultry meat has Campylobacter on it. Eating undercooked chicken or other food that has been contaminated with juices dripping from raw chicken is the most frequent source of this infection.
  • Salmonella is widespread in the intestines of birds, reptiles, and mammals. The illness it causes, salmonellosis, typically includes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. In people with poor health or weakened immune systems, it can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections.
  • E.coli O157:H7 is a bacterial pathogen that has a reservoir in cattle and other similar animals. Human illness typically follows consumption of food or water that has been contaminated with microscopic amounts of cow feces. The illness it causes is often a severe and bloody diarrhea and painful abdominal cramps, without much fever. In 3-5% of cases, a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, can occur several weeks after the initial symptoms. This severe complication includes low levels of iron called anemia, profuse bleeding, and kidney failure.
  • Norwalk virus is an extremely common cause of foodborne illness, resulting in vomiting that resolves within two days. Unlike many foodborne bugs that reside in animals, Norwalk-like viruses spread primarily from one infected person to another. Infected kitchen workers can contaminate a salad or sandwich as they prepare it, if they have the virus on their hands.

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