Campus News

Food safety expert warns future outbreaks likely

The U.S. is probably in for more devastating and far-reaching outbreaks of illness caused by the foods we eat, according to Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at UGA.

Doyle and Claude Burnett, adjunct associate professor of health policy and management at UGA and District 10 director of Northeast Georgia’s Division of Public Health, spoke Jan. 29 as part of a lecture series sponsored by the College of Public Health and the Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute.

Doyle focused on what he called “the two front-burning issues in microbiological safety of the food world: Fresh vegetables and imported food.”

Fruits and vegetables that come pre-cut or ready-to-eat, are more likely to carry pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7, the bacteria that notoriously contaminated spinach in the fall, Doyle said.

Instead, he recommends buying whole vegetables and fruits and washing them.

“When you cut produce, you’re actually wounding it, and the juice in this produce is healthy and when bacteria gets in there, it can grow,” he said. “It’s very hard to disinfect once it gets in there.”

E. coli and Salmonella, two common forms of illness-causing bacteria, are usually introduced through contaminated soil or water, Doyle said.

Unhygienic farming practices in developing nations also increase health risks. As the U.S. relies more on other countries to complement its food supply, the risk grows exponentially.

“2004 was the first year that the U.S. imported more foods than it exported. And it’s growing,” Doyle said.

In places like Vietnam, human excrement is commonly used as fertilizer. Some nations with underdeveloped sewage systems are forced to use tainted water for agriculture, all of which can endanger the food they grow, he added.

“The reality of it is that our FDA visually inspects less than 1 percent of imported foods coming into our ports. It performs tests on less than .3 percent of the products,” Doyle said.

“Based on all of this, there is likely going to be a major increase in outbreaks and the size of the outbreaks in coming years unless we’re able to convince other countries to move to safer harvesting and processing practices,” he said.

Burnett focused on new laws affecting restaurants’ health scorecards. Since December, restaurants are required to post their food inspection scores within 15 feet of the door for ease in customer reading.