I work as an epidemiologist with CDC’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, otherwise known as FoodNet. My job is to study who gets sick and why and share this information with groups and persons whose goal is to reduce the amount of foodborne illness in the United States.
FoodNet is a collaborative project of the CDC, FDA, USDA, and 10 state health departments across the United States. These 10 areas cover 46 million people, or about 15 percent of the U.S. population. We collect information on seven bacteria that cause foodborne illness, such as Salmonella and E. coli O157 as well as two parasites, Cryptosporidium and Cyclospora.
Last week, we released a report on the data that we collected and analyzed for 2009. Here are two key findings from our report, along with tips on how you can reduce your risk of illness:
First, we observed recent successes in fighting E. coli O157:H7. The rate of infection with this dangerous kind of E. coli significantly decreased in 2009, reaching the lowest level since 2004. This type of E. coli is of particular concern because it can cause kidney failure. This infection is especially dangerous for children and the elderly. To help prevent infection with E. coli O157:H7, always cook ground beef and other meats to a safe temperature (use a meat thermometer to check) and avoid unpasteurized juices and milk.
Second, we also observed an increase in Vibrio infections. Vibrio is a type of bacteria that can cause disease in people who eat contaminated seafood, usually raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish. We found that Vibrio infections increased by 85 percent over the past decade or so. While the overall number of these infections is a small percentage of all foodborne illnesses, the infection can cause severe illness or death, particularly in people with weakened immune systems. To prevent this type of infection, avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish.
Also, I encourage you to always follow the four food safety steps:
- Clean: Wash hands, utensils, and cutting boards before and after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs to avoid spreading bacteria when preparing food.
- Separate: Use different cutting boards for meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetables and keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs apart from foods that won’t be cooked.
- Cook: Use a food thermometer. You can't tell if a food item is done by how it looks.
- Chill: Keep your refrigerator at 40 degrees or below to keep bacteria from growing, and chill leftovers and takeout foods within 2 hours.
For more information about FoodNet, visit the CDC FoodNet site.
Questions and Answers
Posted May 3, 2010
Q: It seems to be more foodborne illnesses now than in the past. Is it?
A: The CDC’s FoodNet MMWR report, which was released earlier this month, indicates that the rates of six different foodborne illnesses have declined when compared with 1996-1998. However, most have shown little change since 2004. The notable exceptions in the report are E. coli O157:H7 infections, which declined to their lowest point since 2004, and Vibrio infections, which increased by 85% when compared with 1996-1998. For more details, see Incidence of Foodborne Illness, 2009.
Q: I wonder why we hear only from E coli O157:H7 and we do not hear from other pathogenic E coli strains.
A: Currently, data are limited on non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC). Many clinical laboratories do not test for non-O157 STEC infection because it is more difficult than identifying E. coli O157.
Q: Can the decrease in E. coli O157:H7 be attributed to any practice or preventive control?
A: The recent decrease in E. coli O157:H7 (STEC O157) infection might reflect, in part, control efforts in ground beef processing and produce growing practices. Consumers can reduce their risk of foodborne illness, such as E.coli O157:H7, by following safe food-handling and preparation recommendations, and by avoiding consumption of raw or undercooked foods of animal origin such as eggs, ground beef, and poultry; unpasteurized milk; and raw or undercooked oysters. Risk also can be decreased by choosing pasteurized milk and eggs, high pressure-treated oysters, and irradiated food products. Everyone should also wash hands after contact with animals and their environments.
Consumers should follow the easy lessons of "Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill” as mentioned in this blog.
Since the hydrolyzed vegetable protein recall was announced on March 4, we have received many questions from consumers about HVP and the products that have been recalled. Here are some of the top questions that we’ve received:
- What is hydrolyzed vegetable protein?
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, also known as HVP, is a flavor enhancer that is added to many processed foods, such as snacks and snack mixes, soups and soup mixes, and frozen foods. HVP is made by processing plants like corn, soy, and wheat to change the proteins into their basic components. The end result is a paste or powder that food processors add to their foods to give them a richer flavor.
- Are all foods that contain HVP being recalled?
No. The only products that are being recalled are those that contain HVP made by Basic Food Flavors on or after Sept. 17, 2009 that do not have a food processing step that would kill Salmonella or require further cooking by consumers.
The good news is that most processed foods contain very little HVP. Also, most food processors include processing steps that would kill any Salmonella present when making their products, such as heating to a high temperature or for a long period of time. These processing steps are often referred to as “kill steps,” since they kill the Salmonella. That’s why these foods aren't included in the recall, since they are not considered to present a risk.
- Has anyone gotten sick from eating the recalled food?
To date, no illnesses have been reported, even though these food products had been sold and used since September 2009. Because there have been no reports of illnesses to date, this situation is not considered a "foodborne outbreak."
The risk of becoming sick from the contaminated HVP is very low in most cases. Even so, the FDA, the CDC, and other federal and state agencies are closely monitoring the recall and reports of illnesses to prevent harm to the public.
We have compiled a comprehensive list of questions and answers about the HVP recall, which we update to address questions from consumers. If you have other questions after reading through that list, feel free to submit your questions here.
More Questions and Answers
Posted April 15, 2010
Q. What is the difference between HVP and MSG? Can you still label food 'natural' when it contains HVP?
A. HVP is made by breaking down proteins from certain foods, such as corn or wheat, into their building blocks. These building blocks are called amino acids, and one of them is called glutamic acid. Under certain conditions, glutamic acid exposed to sodium can become monosodium glutamate (MSG).
As to your question about labels... first, a little background. HVP can't be listed on food labels as "hydrolyzed vegetable protein"; it has to be listed according to the food from which the HVP was made. For example, if the HVP was made by breaking down protein from corn, it has to be listed as "hydrolyzed corn protein"; if wheat was used, the label would say "hydrolyzed wheat protein," etc. And manufacturers can't just call it "natural flavor" on the ingredient list. It has to be listed explicitly in the ingredients, as just described.
But now switch gears away from the ingredient list and consider the rest of the label on the food product. Here's where it could get a little confusing, so more explanation is in order. Food labels can make claims like "natural" or "heart healthy" on the front of the product, as long those claims are truthful and not misleading and meet any requirements that FDA has established for the use of those claims. (If manufacturers make those claims without following the requirements, they're in violation.) HVP might be among the ingredients of those kinds of foods -- so you could find a food label that says something like "Natural!" on the front and also lists some type of hydrolyzed vegetable protein among the ingredients.
Q. Does the list of ingredients list this item as HVP?
A. HVP can be listed in different ways on food labels, depending on what ingredients were used to make the HVP. For example, if it's made from wheat, it must be listed as "hydrolyzed wheat protein." If it's made from corn, it's listed as "hydrolyzed corn protein" It can't be listed as "flavor enhancer" or "hydrolyzed vegetable protein." If you're checking food labels to see if a food has HVP, it's better to check the list of recalled HVP products to find out if a company has announced a recall.
As a veterinarian, and a pet owner, I understand how people feel about their pets. For many of us, our pets really are like members of our families. And I firmly believe that we should treat our pets like family when it comes to their food and food safety. It’s actually quite easy, when you know what to do:
- Keep those food and water bowls clean.
You wouldn’t eat off the same plate or drink out of the same glass, day after day, without washing them between meals, right? So it stands to reason that you should keep your pet’s food and water bowls clean as well.
Dogs, cats, and other pets have bacterial microbes in their mouths (people do too!), and these microbes can be transferred to the pet’s food and water dishes. If food is left in the dish, that makes for a good environment for the bacteria to grow and may cause illness—not only in your pet, but also in young children who may play with the food dish..
We recommend washing your pet’s food bowl between meals every day and the water bowl every day or two.
- Store pet food safely.
It’s never a good idea to leave leftovers out of the refrigerator overnight and then feed them to your family the next day. The same holds true for your pet’s food.
If the pet food is moist, refrigerate promptly or discard any unused, leftover wet pet food. Store dry pet food and treats in a cool, dry place (under 80º F). If possible, store dry pet food in its original bag inside a clean, dedicated plastic container with a lid, keeping the top of the bag folded closed. Always wash and dry your pet’s storage containers before refilling them with new food.
- Wash your hands.
We all know that we’re supposed to wash our hands before handling and preparing food, but what you may not know is that the same is true for before and after handling pet food and feeding your pets. Doing this helps keep pet foods from being contaminated with bacteria and other microorganisms, such as Salmonella that can cause disease. If the food is inadvertently contaminated with an organism that causes disease, washing hands also helps to prevent anyone handling the pet food from becoming ill and possibly spreading the disease to others.
Always wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling your pet’s food (including treats) and feeding dishes.