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Novel Food Outbreaks – Cause for Concern and New Discovery

Do you feel that the list of foods that are considered high risk just keeps growing?  If you do, you are correct, and we are seeing a growing number of foods that have been linked to outbreaks for the “first time.” This begs the question of whether this is because food is becoming less safe or because we are getting better at finding outbreaks and connecting them with specific types of food.  My view is that it is much more the latter.  

In recent years, we have heard more and more about novel food vehicles implicated in food poisoning outbreaks. Not only is this an issue because of a lack of history that could have led producers to be more cognizant of preventing and/or testing the food for the particular etiologic agent, but also because of the types of food impacted and the resulting consumer health impacts.

Among the 28 novel foods associated with outbreaks between 2007-2016, as identified in a recent CDC study, the most common were fish (6), nuts (6), fruits (4), vegetables (3), and meats (3). Of these, about 66% did not require cooking, and about 50% did not require refrigeration. So unless the consumer decided to use the food in a cooked or baked product, there was no further kill step for any contamination that reached the consumer.

Additionally, the study found that:

  • Compared with other outbreaks, those linked to novel foods were more likely to involve illnesses in multiple states; result in a food recall; and be generally associated with larger numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
  • Although 33% of the outbreaks linked to novel food vehicles resulted from foods imported from another country, this leaves 67% resulting from foods produced within the U.S.
  • The most commonly reported etiologic agent was Salmonella, implicated in 53% of the outbreaks. Shiga toxin–producingEscherichia coli was second at 14%.

What the industry can take from this study.

There has been a great deal of focus this month on the food industry’s role and responsibility for food safety education (including TAG’s videos on worker education and consumer education). While this is of extreme importance for a food business to help ensure its products stay safe through consumer consumption and its brand remains trusted, there are times – as these incidents show – that the onus must stay solidly on the plate of the food industry. As the study states, “These factors highlight the need for targeted industry efforts to reduce contamination before point of purchase to protect consumers” – which can even mean the reengineering of food processes or policies for prevention.

With contamination able to occur anywhere along the supply chain, the key to prevention is often the ability to understand the potential means and risk of contamination, even when a food has not previously been known to be impacted by a particular pathogen or other contaminant. Once a novel food outbreak does occur, it also can be used as a lesson to help reduce or eliminate future incidents. Although investigating large and complex outbreaks does require considerable government, industry, and public resources and costs, the investigation can provide valuable information. In fact, careful investigation even after an outbreak can define gaps in the system, stimulate further specific research, and indicate the need for new processes or regulations.

This is particularly true of new combinations of pathogens and foods. Not only were many foodborne pathogens first identified during an outbreak investigation, but such discoveries can provide the basis of new research, which also can open doors to discovering new means of prevention with much wider implications.

While the industry should, of course, continue to educate its workers and consumers on food safety and focus its efforts on preventive controls based on risk assessment, a food business must be aware of the potential for novel food contamination issues and be prepared to reroute its processes to account for previously unidentified issues.

Finally, none of us want to be in a situation where the food we are making or selling suddenly becomes “high risk.”  The list of foods associated with outbreaks only gets longer, and the best way to stay out in front of that is to treat all the food you are handling or selling as potentially high risk and use good preventive controls in all aspects of what you do.

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