Did you know that contaminated food is responsible for an estimated 600 million yearly cases of food-borne diseases worldwide? Moreover, almost half-a-million people die every year as a result of food-borne diseases. The majority of these infections are caused by a range of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Dangerous toxins and chemicals are also culprits for contaminating food and can poison unsuspecting consumers.
These factors, both biological and chemical, are known as ‘food safety hazards’ because their presence in food has the potential to negatively impact a consumer’s health in serious ways. Most of us would do whatever is necessary to avoid or reduce our risk exposure to known or visible food safety hazards. So why are there still so many infections and deaths?
The problem is that most food safety hazards are not easily recognisable or readily visible to the naked eye. Even physical hazards in food can be hard to spot. To protect yourself and your family, there are three categories of food safety hazards that you must be aware of:
These hazards can contaminate food at any stage of the production process or at any point of the supply chain. The risk is present during harvesting, processing, transportation, storage and handling.
Food Safety in Trinidad and Tobago is regulated by the Chemistry, Food and Drugs Division (CFDD) of the Ministry of Health. The Food and Drugs Act states that “Any person who sells an article of food which has in or upon it any poisonous or harmful substance is guilty of an offence.” This means that farmers, producers, wholesalers and retailers are responsible for ensuring that food is free from these hazards.
Even with this framework in place, consumers still have a role to play in food safety. Since bacteria, pesticides and preservatives cannot be easily detected by our senses of sight, smell and taste, it is important that each of us learns about ways to reduce our exposure to food safety hazards in all types of food products available at the market or the grocery store.
Pesticides in Food
There is the potential of food-borne illness even from fresh produce since it does not undergo a “kill” step such as cooking before consumption. Common hazards in agriculture include bacteria, pesticides, cleaning solutions, wood and plastic.
Pesticides are widely used to reduce incidence of pests and diseases which improves yield and food production. These chemicals are readily available and frequently used, which increases the potential for direct and indirect health risks. Factors such as the specific chemical, an individual’s level of exposure, age and co-morbidities determine the likelihood for illness.
When pesticides are applied, residues may remain on and in the food which will be ingested. Animals that consume produce and feed that contain pesticide residues may have these chemicals accumulating over time and stored in their fat. Pesticide residues can therefore be found not only in produce but in meat, fish and poultry.
To protect consumers, most countries have a list of approved pesticides that can be used as well as a legal limit for the maximum allowed pesticide residue limits (MRLs) for food. Locally, this aspect of food safety is managed by the Pesticide and Toxic Chemicals Inspectorate of the CFDD. In the United States, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists, as seen below, which empowers consumers to know and reduce their level of exposures to toxic pesticides.
The amount of pesticide residue depends on the pesticide characteristics, amount used, preharvest interval, environmental conditions, and processing methods. The pesticide residue limits should not prevent the regular consumption of fruits and vegetables since the benefits far outweigh the risks. However, there are some measures that can be implemented to reduce our exposure and intake:
Preservatives in Food
Packaged and processed foods provides practical convenience in use or preparation. It also allows availability of food from around the world throughout the year. Food additives like preservatives, colours and stabilisers are added to food to maintain or improve its safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance. Excessive use and labelling of products presents a chemical hazard to the population, especially to those with sensitivities.
Preservatives are used to reduce or control micro-organisms and control oxidation thereby extending the shelf life of the product and reducing food waste. Excess levels of preservatives will not affect the taste of the product and will not be detected without calculation or testing.
Salt, sugar, alcohol, vinegar and oil have been used as natural preservatives long before the introduction of chemical preservatives. Common chemical preservatives for antimicrobial action include benzoates, nitrites, sulphites, sorbates. Antioxidants which slow or stop the breakdown of fats and oils include BHT, BHA and ascorbic acid. For a more inclusive list, the table below highlights common chemical preservatives and the associated foods:
Similar to pesticide residue limits, there are legal regulations in each country in relation to the allowed additives and their maximum permitted levels. Locally, these stringent limits and regulations are outlined in The Food and Drugs Act, Division 7—Preservatives.
Studies have shown that chemical preservatives can cause serious health hazards such as hypersensitivity, allergic reactions, asthma, hyperactivity especially in children, neurological damage, heart disease and cancer. To maintain good health, consumers can take the following steps:
Pathogens in Food
Whereas pesticides and preservatives usually cause medium or long-term health effects, bacteria often cause immediate to short term effects. Data for 21 Member States of The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), from 2005-2016, indicate that Salmonella was the most common infection, followed by Ciguatera poisoning (toxin in fish), Shigella, Campylobacter and Norovirus. In the US the most common food borne bacteria are Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli.
Contaminated food or water may cause symptoms as quickly as 30 minutes – 6 hours after ingestion, or as delayed as 12-72 hours, up to 1 week depending on the organism, virulence and the host. Symptoms of food-borne illness include diarrhoea, nausea, abdominal cramps, joint/back aches and vomiting, with or without fever. The majority of cases are mild and symptoms last for only a day or two. This presents a major problem in the Caribbean with underreporting and implementing action. Other cases are more serious and result in hospitalisation, long lasting disability and even death. The severe cases occur in infants and children, pregnant women, elderly, immuno-compromised individuals and in healthy people exposed to a very high dose of an organism.
To reduce the incidence of microbial hazards, food safety has to be implemented from farm to fork. Practical tips include:
Food Safety remains the concern and responsibility of all players in the food chain. Food-borne diseases are in fact a burden to public health and the economy and will continue to present a challenge due to globalisation and increasing demand.
We as a society have to protect the most vulnerable through increased awareness and education. Protecting people also requires building national food systems and legal frameworks with policies and programmes to sustain food safety. Consumers must take the initiative to become familiar with common food hazards and read labels on food packages. All of these actions taken together will help consumers to make more informed choices. The ultimate goal is confidence of nutritious and safe food available to all.