• WisBusiness

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In a world suddenly attuned to food safety, Wisconsin has expertise to offer

By Tom Still
A half-billion recalled eggs are enough to get any consumer’s attention, but the emerging story of food safety in America didn’t begin last month on an Iowa farm – and it certainly won’t end there.

As people think more about what they eat and drink, and from where that food comes, science and technology will play a larger role in helping people determine what’s safe to consume. That may seem contradictory in an era when organic foods, “buy local,” urban gardening and food vetting are changing lifestyles, but it’s a safe bet all this diversity in food sourcing will mean new and more innovative ways to ensure its safety.

About 500 million eggs from two Iowa farms were recalled because the eggs were linked to more than 1,000 cases of salmonella, a bacterium that can cause abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting and diarrhea, usually within 12 to 72 hours of exposure. Federal and state inspections since the recall have revealed potential health violations on the farms.

While the Iowa egg recall is one of the biggest food safety scares, it’s not the first – nor, unfortunately, will it be the last. Other recalls have involved salsa, fish, lettuce and many more products, some from overseas but mainly from our own farms, feedlots and food processing plants. As diligent as nearly all farmers, ranchers and processors are, there’s always the danger that their products can carry hidden food-borne illnesses.

The way food is processed, transported and prepared is important because virtually all foods have the ability to carry microorganisms (such as bacteria and viruses) or toxins that can cause illness. These illnesses can strike if microorganisms or toxins are introduced to food, or if bacteria are allowed to grow in food without being killed – usually by heat – before eating.

A recent study by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine found that food-borne illnesses send more than 300,000 Americans to the hospital each year and 5,000 of them die. That’s a far cry from 100 years ago, when a lack of refrigeration, proper packaging and knowledge about food handling and preparation led to far more serious outbreaks in food-borne illnesses. But recent trends suggest that after decades of food safety improvements, a tipping point has been reached.

One reason is consumer choice. People are buying or growing foods in many different ways, and there’s no guarantee that “local” or “organic” is 100 percent safe. Globalization is another factor. As more consumers seek out foods produced predominantly overseas, it has complicated the processes for certifying safety or compliance with other regulations, such as those determining what’s organic and what is not. What happens in our kitchens is also a factor. In some Americans homes, recent surveys indicate, cooks aren’t taking the right precautions in preparing or serving meals.

Science and technology can help – and a good deal of it exists in Wisconsin, where a long tradition of producing food is matched by a tradition of trying to keep it safe.

At the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, food safety has long been a staple. For example, scientists at CALS are studying how bacteria can hitch a ride on plants to get to humans, how wildlife intrusions in fields where crops are grown can spread disease, and how environmental conditions can affect our food sources.

At the Marshfield Clinic, nearly 100 years of experience in working with human and animals has created services that help improve food safety from farm to table. Researchers at Marshfield offer nationally respected testing systems, consulting and training. The clinic even provides best-practice advice on how farmers and producers can keep their workers safe.

Wisconsin’s food processing industry has also embraced food safety in its labs and on its production lines. Innovation in safety is also guiding how smaller firms, farms and producers do business.

In fact, food safety was at the heart of a debate in the Wisconsin Legislature earlier this year, when Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmers to sell unpasteurized, or “raw,” milk to consumers on a limited basis. The risks associated with drinking raw milk are real – between 1 percent and 10 percent of raw milk samples are likely to contain pathogenic bacteria. Then again, some people drink it for health reasons, including many dairy farm families. This clash between public health and consumer choice is emblematic of coming debates.

Science and technology can help. It can provide innovative ways to improve safety while giving consumers more options. In Wisconsin, which produces food for the world and also boasts world-class researchers who know about food, such innovation is a natural.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


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