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Before I began working on my MPH, I knew very little about how foodborne disease outbreaks (or any outbreaks for that matter) were investigated. I just assumed that health departments would compare lab test results from a large group of people that got sick and look for commonalities in the foods they consumed or activities in which they participated. However, during my MPH and through my work at CFI, I have gained a greater knowledge and appreciation for the work that goes into an outbreak investigation. As a result, I would like to share a brief overview of the “Anatomy of an Outbreak Investigation” so that you might better appreciate the work that goes into such an investigation.
Outbreak Investigations can be divided into 3 main phases: descriptive, analytical, and intervention. The descriptive phase is first and is focused on information and data gathering. The analytical phase follows and uses the data gathered during the descriptive phase to look for potential risk factors and areas for intervention. The final phase, intervention, uses the results of the analytical phase to make more targeted interventions to try to halt the outbreak and stop the spread. I will now dive in and provide a little more detail on what occurs during the 3 phases.
The first step of the descriptive phase (and of any outbreak investigation) is to determine if an outbreak is occurring. Here, it is worth mentioning the definition of an outbreak. An outbreak or epidemic occurs when we see levels of a disease above what is expected. For example, we expect to have a certain number of flu cases each flu season. However, if we see higher levels of flu than expected (as with 2009-2010 H1N1), an outbreak is declared. In the case of the 2009-2010 H1N1 outbreak, because it was an epidemic or outbreak affecting the whole world, we refer to it as a pandemic. Right, so back to step 1. To understand an outbreak is occurring, we must know if the number of cases of a disease is higher than we expect. For foodborne disease, this is done through surveillance systems such as FoodNet and PulseNet. Each year, we expect a certain number of sporadic cases of the various foodborne pathogens (Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, etc.) based on trends from previous years. If we ever see an unexpected spike in cases, the alarm is sounded, and an outbreak is declared. Outbreaks can also be declared when a specific strain of a pathogen is detected in several, seemingly unrelated people. This is done using PulseNet which sequences pathogens recovered from sick individuals. If the same sequence appears in multiple individuals, an outbreak can be declared.
The next step of the descriptive phase is to create a case definition and identify your outbreak cases. Setting an appropriate case definition is an important step as making the definition too inclusive may overload the system and overestimate the size of the outbreak. However, making the definition too exclusive will leave out cases and valuable data. Using simple, objective criteria for the case definition is the best way to ensure systematic and uniform inclusion of cases. The case definition can also evolve over time as more is learned about an outbreak. For example, if an outbreak of Salmonella were occurring, you might start with a case definition of any individual with lab-confirmed Salmonella matching the outbreak strain. Then as you learn risk-factors and potential source foods, you can target the case definition to be any individuals with lab-confirmed Salmonella matching the outbreak strain who ate certain foods or attended a specific event.
Once the cases are identified, you want to begin part 3 of the descriptive phase, describing the occurrence of disease in time and place. Here is where you will find the “epidemic curve,” a plot showing cases over time, as well as maps showing spatial trends in the outbreak. In a foodborne outbreak investigation, investigators will also conduct interviews with confirmed cases to obtain information on what they ate, how they prepared food, if they attended any events or restaurants, etc. These interviews are performed by local health departments and contain questions based on previous foodborne contamination events in order to avoid bias and better direct questions. The information gathered here will aid investigators in the analytical phase of the investigation.
Speaking of the analytical phase, that is the next stop in our outbreak investigation. This phase has two steps: hypothesis generation and hypothesis testing. Using the epidemiological data collected in phase 1, investigators try to answer the following questions:
- What is the cause of the outbreak? (what is the pathogen or infectious agent?)
- What is the source of the outbreak? (common point source or multiple sources?)
- How did the outbreak spread? (what is the transmission pathway?)
- What are the risk factors associated with the outbreak?
The goal behind answering these questions is to identify key components of the outbreak in order to inform the third and final phase of the outbreak investigation.
The last phase of an outbreak investigation is the intervention phase. Similar to the previous phase, there are 2 parts to the intervention phase: implementing control and prevention measures and communicating the findings. The goal of any outbreak investigation is to stop the outbreak from spreading and limit the number of illnesses and deaths. Information gathered during the previous two phases of the investigation informs the interventions of the third phase. For example, in foodborne disease outbreaks, once investigators learn the source of an outbreak (i.e. romaine lettuce from Yuma, AZ), they will advise people to avoid food from that source until corrective action is taken. In cases where there is a food processor or company behind the outbreak, investigators will gather enough information to convince the processor or company to make a voluntary recall in order to help prevent the spread.
Lastly, it is crucial to communicate the findings from any outbreak investigation. As humans, we can make mistakes while learning along the way. In an outbreak investigation, mistakes may get made and there may be things the investigators wished they had done differently. By communicating and reporting on the outbreak as it happened, future investigations can be aided by the knowledge gained during previous investigations. Once the final numbers are in and reported, the outbreak investigation can be closed. Hopefully now you have a better understanding of how outbreaks are investigated and the work that goes into completing such an investigation. If you would like to dive deeper into how outbreak investigations occur, I recommend starting at the CDC’s website at the following link: https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/outbreaks/investigating-outbreaks/investigations/index.html#anchor_1529592062
Graduate Research Associate
By: Allison Howell
In 2011, the FAO released a report with a startling statistic: nearly 1/3 of food produced in the world is wasted or lost. Since then, reducing food waste has become a hot topic 1. One popular method of reducing the amount of food waste sent to landfills at the consumer level is composting. Composting is a process of converting organic waste, such as fruits, vegetables and yard waste like leaves and grass clippings into a mixture for promoting plant growth, a “natural” fertilizer. This fertilizer can then be used to provide fuel for your plants, vegetable gardens, or window boxes. While commercially produced and distributed compost is subject to regulation by the Ohio EPA, compost created at a home residence is not subject to regulation or inspection. Without any sort of regulation into the safety of home-generated compost, risk arises in using the compost for vegetable or herb gardens, where the plant grown is intended to be consumed.
Today, there are lots of options for individuals to start composting. A quick search for “home composting” reveals a plethora of articles and guides for individuals to start composting. Some require the use of compost bins which can cost anywhere from $60 to upwards of $200, but you can also find DIY guides that require only space, time, and lots of browns (carbon-rich materials like leaves, newspapers, and twigs) and greens ( nitrogen or protein rich materials like grass clippings, fruit and veggie scraps, or egg shells).2 The EPA provides guidance on which waste items can be composted at home and which should not. While most yard and food scraps can be composted, some should be avoided for food safety and feasibility reasons. Dairy and meat may be hosts for harmful bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli. Composting contaminated foods would lead to the spread of pathogens onto the crops that is fertilized. Moreover, composting these items can attract pests or insects to the compost, which could again lead to transmission of pathogens.
However, for those low on space or time, but rich in browns and greens, community composting groups have begun to pop up in some neighborhoods. The mechanics of composting are the same, but the logistics make composting much easier (and possibly less stinky) for consumers. Composting programs such as the Compost Exchange in Columbus, Ohio provide subscribers with a plastic bucket and compostable liners to collect compostable materials and then collect the contents of the bucket to be composted at their own facility. Programs like this are becoming quite popular. A 2019 report from US Public Interest Research Group revealed that the number of communities offering composting programs like Columbus’ Compost Exchange has grown by 65 percent over the last five years3.
So what exactly happens to the compost generated by at-home composters or community composting groups?
- If you compost at home, you can reap the benefits of your hard work and use the compost as you wish to fertilize plants. Most composting groups also make the final compost product available to those that helped contribute the browns and greens necessary, sometimes free and sometimes for a small fee.
The final piece of this composting puzzle is where the food safety questions begin to arise. Here are some common questions about composting and food safety.
- Is it safe to use homemade compost as a fertilizer for home-grown fruits and vegetables?
- Probably. If you composted the correct materials and incorporated an appropriate amount of air and water to your compost.
- What if I accidentally composted something that I shouldn’t have? Can I still use my compost as fertilizer for plants that will be eaten?
- It depends. There are various reasons why certain items should not be composted and the resulting risk of incorrectly composting an item may vary based on that reason. To be safe, it would be best to not use for growing food, though you could use it for flowers or decorative plants.
- How do I know that my compost is ready to be used as fertilizer? If I use it before it’s ready, am I going to get sick?
- Compost is ready to use after it no longer resembles the starting materials, but looks like potting soil. It should feel cool and crumbly when touched4. It’s unlikely that compost contains pathogenic bacteria that could make you sick, but it could happen. There is always chance food could make us sick, and it is possible that harmful bacteria may be present in a compost heap at some time or another.
The rise of composting as a mechanism for reducing food loss (see the important distinction between food loss and food waste here), is a great advancement towards creating a more sustainable food system. But this excitement must be balanced with a conservative approach to and consideration of how composting might affect the safety of food, which it is used to fertilize down the line. To quote a 2018 review article on the topic “Understanding the mechanisms of pathogen survival during the composting process and mechanisms that reduce pathogen populations can minimize the risk of pathogen contamination in the cultivation of fruits and vegetables”5. An aptly-titled 2020 article from Food Safety News “Cook your compost to the same temperature as your burgers” provided several important calls to action for individuals looking to start composting. However, the first action item cited by Brian Bonner is to “educate yourself on composting’s benefits and risks” is perhaps the most important6. The act of composting is positioned uniquely between two major areas of food studies: food safety and food loss and waste. To make responsible decisions and minimize food safety risk while maximizing the benefit of reducing food waste and loss, education is an imperative first step. Learning about and incorporating an understanding of food safety risk in your approach to composting can help ensure that the compost generated by your efforts best nourishes plants without introducing additional food safety risks to the friends, family, or even strangers that may end up consuming compost-fertilized produce.
1. Food Loss and Food Waste. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
2. Vanderlinden, C. Which Items Are ‘Greens’ and Which Are ‘Browns’ for Composting? The Spruce
3. Composting in America | U.S. PIRG.
4. Composting | NRCS.
5. Gurtler, J. B. et al. Composting To Inactivate Foodborne Pathogens for Crop Soil Application: A Review. J Food Prot 81, 1821–1837 (2018).
6. Bonner, Brian. Cook your compost to the same temperature as your burgers. Food Safety News
Graduate Research Associate
By: Ariel Garsow
Looking at the back of a package of frozen food, there can be detailed instructions. Are these instructions important to follow for food safety?
What labels mean
Frozen foods are separated into categories based on how they need to be cooked for food safety. Some are ready to eat, like yummy Dino Buddies (although many would prefer cooked Dino Buddies), while others, like Lean Cuisine Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli need to be cooked before they are ready to be consumed. You can tell if an item is ready to be consumed by looking at the front of the package for a label that says fully cooked (circled in red in the photo below).
On the other hand, the Lean Cuisine Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli needs to be cooked thoroughly before it is consumed (circled in red in the photo below).
Reason for the directions
The cooking instructions on a package of frozen food are created to optimize safety and quality for the consumer in order to ensure that food is safe and the ideal texture and taste of the food is achieved. If you are anything like me, the part that I want to skip the most in the directions on the back of a package of frozen food is the stir and put the item back in the microwave.
There is a reason for this step. Heating is not even in a microwave. Many microwaves have turn tables to mitigate these temperature differences and allow for more even heating of foods. The picture below shows the result of a simulation of the temperature differences throughout a microwave with a potato in it (COMSOL, 2017). The red spots show hotter areas while the blue spots demonstrate colder areas in the microwave.
This is why Lean Cuisine Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli in their directions states that after stirring, the product needs to be “cook[ed] again for 1:30 minutes on high.”
One note on stirring: the product is not completely cooked after the first cook step. For reduction of risk of foodborne illness, the utensil being used to stir should be washed before it is used again.
There is a higher risk of foodborne illness if you consume foods that are not prepared according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In March 2016, an outbreak of listeriosis was found to be caused by individuals that ate frozen sweet corn and green peas. Listeria monocytogenes can cause serious health effects such as death and miscarriage in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
I hope the next time you pull out your frozen meal from the microwave, you understand the importance of waiting for the food to be fully cooked to reduce your risk of foodborne illness.
COMSOL. (2017). The Microwave Heating Principle. Multiphysics Cyclopedia. https://www.comsol.com/multiphysics/microwave-heating
Lean Cuisine. (n.d.). Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli. https://www.goodnes.com/lean-cuisine/products/alfredo-pasta-chicken-broccoli/
Yummy Dino Buddies. (2018). Gluten Free Dinosaur Nuggets. https://www.yummydinobuddies.com/products
Graduate Research Associate
By: Vanora Davila
So, you want to talk about the danger zone? The temperature danger zone, that is. When talking about food, the danger zone refers to the temperature range in which bacteria growth occurs most rapidly -- 41˚F (5˚C) to 140˚F (60˚C). In this range, food-poisoning bacteria can multiply to dangerous levels that can cause foodborne illness. Many times, this danger zone can be a result of improper cooling techniques that can be easily avoided.
After cooking, hot foods, such as soups, stocks, cooked meats, pasta, rice, and foods containing dairy, and eggs should be kept hot or be cooled quickly if not immediately served. If you are trying to keep the food hot, you can place the food hot on the stove top or the oven, ensuring the unit is set high enough to keep food hotter than 140˚F.
If the food is to be put away, it should cool down from 140˚F to 70˚F within two hours and to 41˚F or lower within four hours. However, hot food needs some help to go through this process. While we may think that a refrigerator should be up for this task, the truth is that refrigerators are not capable of quickly and safely cooling hot foods. Putting hot foods directly into the fridge or freezer can actually raise the overall temperature of the unit, allowing other foods in your fridge or freezer to enter the danger zone and become hazardous.
Instead, a food ice bath is a great and effective way to cool food quickly and evenly while preventing bacteria from growing and multiplying.
How to make a food ice bath:
- Fill your sink or a large container with ice and cold water
- Place your smaller container of food into the ice bath (container should be level with the ice). Tip: stainless steel containers are great for heat transfer!
- Occasionally stir the food to release heat and ensure the food cools down evenly
- Verify your food’s temperature using a food thermometer. Once the food reaches 40˚F, it is ready to be safely put away in the refrigerator
As you can see, making a food ice bath is simple. The next time you have hot foods that need to be put away, remember that ice baths help you avoid the danger zone with great ease.
1. Cool soup safely. Available from: https://extension.umn.edu/preserving-and-preparing/cool-soup-safely
2. Keeping Your Customers Safe by Cooling Food Properly. Available from: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/inspect/inspect-foodmatter...
By: Drew Barkley
One year ago, community transmission of COVID-19 in the United States led several states to impose stay-at-home orders to reduce person-to-person transmission of the virus. As the year went on, messaging on hand hygiene, mask wearing, and social distancing were stressed as public health measures that were our best tools for combatting COVID-19. While the measures used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 varied from state to state, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life as we knew it and changed the way we have been living our daily lives since then. Early on, there was speculation that these newly emphasized public health measures would reduce the spread of other diseases as well. Hand washing had always been recommended but not always followed. One year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we now have the data to begin looking at how the reaction to the pandemic impacted the spread of other communicable diseases.
As many public health officials predicted, there has been an impact on rates of other respiratory diseases. The CDC has noted that flu activity is significantly down this flu season, compared to the previous flu seasons.1 This decrease in seasonal flu is hypothesized to be due to a combination of the improved public health measures as well as an increase in vaccinations compared to previous flu seasons. The increase in vaccinations could have been driven by a strong campaign to encourage vaccination.2 Two studies have also found that social distancing and travel restrictions have decreased other non-COVID hospital admissions as well.3 4 The first found a significant decrease in non-COVID-19 respiratory diseases and the second actually found a decrease in foodborne and sexually transmitted diseases. However, there is also evidence that the pandemic has reduced the number of people seeking healthcare as they want to avoid potential exposures in the clinics and hospitals.5 So while the decrease we see in some non-COVID illnesses may be due to the positive impact of social distancing and mask wearing, it may also be because people that have those illnesses are no longer seeking care, and so are not captured in the statistics.
So how does foodborne disease fit into all of this? Initially, the CDC had noticed that last summer, the expected counts from PulseNet, an active foodborne disease outbreak surveillance system, were lower than previous years. The question was whether this was due to improved hand hygiene and a rise in contactless delivery, or whether people with foodborne diseases were less likely to seek care during the pandemic.
At CFI, we are currently working with Ohio State’s Information Warehouse Database (IWD) of electronic health record data as part of a new project. This database contains health information for all adults seen within the OSU healthcare system. While we are primarily using the data to look at the impact of long-term health outcomes from an incident case of foodborne disease, we can also use the data to determine whether there is a true decrease in cases during the pandemic or whether it is due to a drop in healthcare-seeking behavior. The work done on this project should help clarify what is happening with foodborne disease during the pandemic.
3 Nolen, L. D., S. Seeman, D. Bruden, J. Klejka, C. Desnoyers, J. Tiesinga, and R. Singleton. 2020. Impact of Social Distancing and Travel Restrictions on Non–Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Non–COVID-19) Respiratory Hospital Admissions in Young Children in Rural Alaska. Clin. Infect. Dis. Oxford University Press (OUP).
4 de Miguel Buckley, R., E. Trigo, F. de la Calle-Prieto, M. Arsuaga, and M. Díaz-Menéndez. 2020. Social distancing to combat COVID-19 led to a marked decrease in food-borne infections and sexually transmitted diseases in Spain. J. Travel Med. NLM (Medline) 27.
By: Devon Mendez
With the continuation of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, individuals are cooking at home more often than they may have in the past. While this cooking increase can lead to healthier meals, proper food safety must be followed to kill any potential foodborne pathogens. Although many people own a food thermometer, many people do not know how to use them properly. When cooking meat or eggs, a food thermometer is an essential kitchen item in preventing foodborne illness.
While all food thermometers are capable of reading temperatures, they are not created equal. Even though all thermometers can register temperature, each does it in different ways, making different types of thermometers appropriate for different uses.
Though not an exhaustive list, the chart below gives additional information on some thermometer types commonly used in the home kitchen. While no one individual needs all these thermometers, cooks should use this knowledge to help guide the thermometer they choose to ensure it is appropriate for their regular needs. All thermometers included in chart can be found with relative ease either in store or online.
|Thermocouple||2-5 sec.||Can be inserted as little as ¼” or deeper as needed||
Can be used for both thick (>1/2”) and thin foods
Should not be left in food while cooking
Can be expensive
|Thermistors||10 sec.||At least ½” deep in the food||
Can be used for thick and thin foodsUsed to check food temps at end of cooking time
|Oven Cord Thermometers||10 sec.||At least ½” deep in the food||
Can also be used outside the ovenCan remain in food while cooking
|Thermometer Fork Combination||10 sec.||At least ½” deep in the food||Used to check food temps at the end of cooking time|
|Pop-Up Timers||Reacts when meat is 1 to 2 degrees F from ideal temperature||Thickest part of meat||
Recommend verifying temperature with conventional food thermometer.Accuracy highly dependent on proper placement
|Liquid-Filled Thermometers||10 sec.||At least 2 inches deep||
Can get false high readingsNot good for food safety purposes
|Candy/Jelly/ Deep Fry Thermometers||10 sec.||Sits in pan with tip in liquid||
Can be used for candy making and fryingCan measure extra-high temperatures
Armed with the knowledge of what thermometer to choose, home chefs must also remember some these important tips to ensure the safe use of their chosen thermometer:
- Check manufacturer’s instructions to ensure you are following proper instructions.
- For roasts, the thermometer should be inserted midway into the thickest part of the meat, away from the bone.
- For burgers, steaks, and chops the thermometer should be inserted into thickest part away from bone, fat, and gristle.
- Poultry should be measured at the innermost part of the wing or thigh, and in breasts it should be in the thickest part.
- Be sure to use caution when checking food temperature.
- Remove food from heat.
- Make sure to wear hand covering/ oven mitts when handling metal probes.
- This information and more about food thermometers and other important food safety facts resources can be found on the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website at: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/kitchen-thermometers
By: Laura Binkley
Achenef Melaku Beyene DVM, MSc, is a TARTARE fellow working on his PhD at the University of Gondar, Ethiopia that recently spent 6 months (end of 2019 beginning of 2020) here at The Ohio State University gaining research experience in Dr. Ahmed Yousef’s lab. Below, we have interviewed Dr. Achenef about his experience and current work.
What is your main research question as part of TARTARE?
As a part of TARTARE and my PhD work, I will try to find the best answers for the following questions:
- To what extent is food of animal origin, particularly raw meat and milk in and around Gondar, contaminated by non-typhoidal Salmonella (NTS) and Shiga Toxin producing E. coli (STEC)?
- What is the contribution of NTS and STEC to foodborne illness of the community in and around Gondar?
- Is there any molecular relationship among NTS and STEC isolates from human, animal, and food so as to assess the transmission dynamics and design appropriate control and prevention strategies?
- Is it possible to minimize contamination during the production of milk for dairy farmers by providing training on intervention techniques for dairy farmers?
What drew you to the field of Microbiology?
Microbes are part of our life, some of them cause disease in humans and animals; others are beneficial, particularly in dairy and other industries. So, to minimize the harmful effects and maximize the benefits, it is essential to know about them and work with them. In developing countries like Ethiopia, several diseases due to microbes are not yet controlled and introduce huge morbidity and mortality. These are all factors that drew my attention to learning more about them and deciding to work on them.
What are some of the methodologies you were able to learn throughout your experience at The Ohio State University in Dr. Yousef’s lab?
During my six months stay in Dr. Yousef’s laboratory, I got the opportunity to practice on a range of general techniques to specific molecular procedures. The first two months of my trainings were focused on general bacteriological techniques. This was followed by detection and confirmation of Salmonella in food samples using standard procedures. I collected samples in local and international food stores in Columbus and was able to analyze them. The detection procedure includes culturing of the food samples using nonselective and selective media. In addition, the suspected colonies of bacteria were confirmed by a biochemical test (API- 20E) and molecular producers (both conventional and multiplex PCR). Towards the end of the period, detecting Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) was the focus of the training. In the meantime, I was able to attend lectures on food microbiology and molecular diagnosis of infectious diseases. Generally, I strongly believed that the training boosts my capacity and prepared me to conduct other microbiological or molecular techniques easily and efficiently.
Have you been able to implement any of these methodologies in Ethiopia?
Yes, the plan is to implement almost all procedures in Ethiopia under the TARTARE project. The methodologies will be applied to detect Salmonella and STEC in food of animal origin, particularly in raw meat and milk. However, the current COVID-19 pandemic is creating obstacles with implementing methodologies in Ethiopia.
What was your favorite or most enjoyable aspect of your experience at The Ohio State University?
I like the laboratory working environment, it is well-equipped and the necessary facilities are available. If there is a demand for reagents, the purchasing and delivery process was so quick. Working with the team in the laboratory with active follow up by the professor was so great. This was very interesting and allowed me to learn more. There was also a weekly lab meeting to assess progresses and solve problems if any. If such conditions were fulfilled in Gondar, I would have finished my PhD work within 6 additional months.
What are your greatest challenges thus far with implementation?
The greatest challenge to implementing methodologies acquired from Ohio is absence of a biosafety level II laboratory to handle Salmonella and other pathogens in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Gondar. There was a plan to renovate one of our laboratories. The process was started; however, it has been interrupted due to the current pandemic. I am hoping that the process will be commenced and the issue will be resolved. Otherwise, we will have to look for other laboratories with better facilities.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us about your experience working in foodborne illness research with The Ohio State University?
Yes, I would like to acknowledge individuals and institutes that directly or indirectly helped me for the success of the training. I would like to thank Prof. Ahmed Yousef, Prof. Wondwossen A. Gebreyes, Dr. Ahmed G. Abdelhamid, and Dr. Barbara B. Kowalcyk for their technical assistance and guidance. I am also grateful to NIH Fogarty International center, OHEART, GOHI, East Africa Regional Office for the opportunity. I would like to extend my thanks to The Ohio State University International office for the reception and guidance to make my stay smooth and fruitful. The assistance of Kayleigh Gallagher was also so great, thank you. Finally, I would like to acknowledge lab members in the department of Food Science and Technology for their help during the practice.
By: Devon Mendez
Potatoes, in all varieties, are one of the most beloved comfort foods in the United States, with the average American consuming nearly 117 pounds of potatoes per year, largely in the form of frozen French fries and tater-tots. While there is little argument that these fried delicacies are a favorite of many, these delicious dishes can pose a risk to more than your waistline. This risk occurs when potatoes are cooked using high temperature cooking methods (above 248 degrees F) such as frying, roasting, or baking. When high carbohydrate foods such as potatoes are cooked at these temperatures, their natural sugars and the amino acid asparagine, undergo a chemical change that producing the compound acrylamide. While this compound is a result of a natural processes, acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in animals and is recognized as a potential carcinogenic in humans by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As such, the FDA recommends that individuals limit the amount of acrylamide in their diets and do their best to consume their favorite potato dishes in the safest way possible.
By following some basic food storage, preparation, and selection tips individuals can minimize their acrylamide exposure and continue to enjoy their favorite potato-based foods.
Tips to reduce acrylamide exposure when consuming potatoes:
- Soak potatoes 15-30 minutes before baking or frying to help reduce their starch content, in turn reducing the amount of acrylamide produced during the cooking process
- Limit the number of potato dishes consumed that are prepared using frying, roasting, and baking
- “Wet” prep potato dishes, such as mashed potatoes and potato salad, do not lead to a significant amount of acrylamides
- Store potatoes outside of the refrigerator
- Refrigeration prior to cooking can increase the level of acrylamide produced during the cooking process
- Cook sliced potato products such as French fries and potato slices for less time
- Longer cooking times yield higher levels of acrylamides
- Aim for lightly browned potatoes rather than dark brown when cooking
While it is impossible to eliminate acrylamides from our diets, taking small steps to reduce day-to-day exposure can help reduce any potential risk. By following the simple steps outlined above, as well as consuming a diet containing a variety of foods, individuals can significantly reduce their exposure to acrylamide. Diet diversity is especially important in children, who often enjoy foods that are naturally high in acrylamides such as French fries, tater-tots, and potato chips. As with almost anything, moderation is key, and by enjoying a healthy variety of foods prepared in a variety of ways, we can all continue to enjoy all of our favorite fried and roasted potato dishes without too much concern.
By: Vanora Davila
It is that time of year! The holiday season is here and if your family is anything like mine, you are probably already thinking about all the delicious meals you will be making to celebrate and share with your loved ones!
The end-of-the-year holidays can be some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments one can experience, but inappropriate food-handling behaviors can turn the most exciting of times into despair.
From baking those perfectly crispy but chewy on the inside cookies, to cooking that scrumptious main course meal, there are unfortunately many opportunities for foodborne illness to make an unexpected appearance.
To make sure you and your family stay safe and avoid foodborne illness this holiday season, there are some simple guidelines you can follow, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before, during, and after preparing food.
- Wash all utensils, cutting boards, before and immediately after use.
- Clean all produce with running water before use.
- Do not wash raw meat and poultry! This could increase your risk of food poisoning by spreading bacteria onto your hands, and onto nearby high-touch surfaces (USDA, 2020).
- Separate! - Avoid cross-contamination.
- Keep raw foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and fish separated when buying them at the grocery store and when storing them at home. You do not want their juices to get onto other foods!
- Always keep fruits and vegetables away from raw meats, poultry, eggs, and seafood.
- Cook! - Fully cook all food that is not ready-to-eat.
- Make sure to use a food thermometer to ensure the thickest part of all meat, poultry, and fish are cooked to a safe internal temperature. Minimum cooking temperatures for varied foods can be found at: https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/safe-minimum-cooking-temperature.
- Turkey stuffing and dressing must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. If cooked inside the turkey, the stuffing should be prepared and stuffed into the turkey immediately before it is placed in the oven. Any extra stuffing should be baked before use.
- Bring gravies, soups and sauces to a rolling boil when reheating.
- Do not eat raw dough or batter. Raw doughs contain uncooked eggs and flour, which can contain bacteria that is only killed when the dough is fully cooked.
- When making eggnog, tiramisu, or any dish that uses raw eggs, make sure to use pasteurized shell eggs, liquid or frozen pasteurized egg products, or powdered egg whites.
- Chill! - Refrigerate and thaw foods appropriately.
- Refrigerate any leftovers that should be refrigerated within two hours to avoid unwanted bacteria growth. Leftovers should be used within four days.
- Do not thaw food at room temperature. Foods like meats and turkey should be thawed in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave, to prevent harmful bacteria from growing.
- Your refrigerator’s temperature should be set at or below 40°F and the freezer should be set to 0°F or lower.
So, there you have it! Whether you are making a dish for the first time ever or you are using your family’s generational recipes, keep these tips in mind to make sure you and your family safely enjoy the festivities.
Affairs (ASPA), A. S. for P. (2019, April 12). Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures Charts. FoodSafety.Gov. https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/safe-minimum-cooking-temperature
CDC. (2020, October 14). Holiday Food Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/communication/holidays.html
FDA. (2020). Food Safety Tips for Healthy Holidays. FDA. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/food-safety-tips-healthy-holidays
Washing Food: Does it Promote Food Safety? (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/washing-food-does-it-promote-food-safety/washing-food
Graduate Practicum Student
By: Allison Howell
Federal regulations are complicated, technical, and often difficult for consumers to understand. But everyone eats produce. A basic understanding of what types of produce or produce commodities are included or not included in federal regulations and what those regulations mean can help consumers make informed decisions about buying, preparing, and consuming produce safely.
Background on FSMA
First introduced in the House of Representatives in 2009, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 (FSMA) underwent several revisions and amendments before being signed into law by President Obama in early 2011. It was the first piece of federal legislation to address food safety since The Federal Food Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 . FSMA greatly expanded the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulatory authority. FSMA is a great accomplishment in terms of shifting the goal of federal oversight to preventing foodborne illness instead of reacting to it.
FSMA did not outline specific regulations for food safety, but instead expanded FDA’s regulatory authority so they could develop additional rules aimed at implementing the goals of FSMA.
Since FSMA was signed into law, the FDA has developed several final rules that provide specific guidance to industry and detail the FDA’s role in enforcing these rules. A full list of the proposed and final rules related to FSMA can be found at: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma/fsma-rules-guidance-industry#rules.
One of the FSMA final rules is the “Standard for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption” also known as the Produce Safety Rule . The rule went into effect in January of 2016, and covered farms were required to comply by early 2020. Full details of the Produce Safety Rule can be found at: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma/fsma-final-rule-produce-safety#requirements.
But what does FSMA mean for consumers?
Most types of produce that you can buy at a grocery store are covered by the Produce Safety Rule and producers are held accountable for adhering to the FDA’s Standard for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption. That means, when you buy an apple from the grocery store, you can reasonably assume that federal regulations designed to reduce the presence of foodborne pathogens on or in apples have been followed. After giving it a quick wash with some water (you should always wash fresh produce before consuming), you can slice it up or bite right in and enjoy. It is important to remember that the Produce Safety Rule sets standards for growers that sell the produce, but poor handling or cross contamination by consumers can still lead to foodborne illness. Read more about the FDA’s recommendation for safely selecting and serving produce here: https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/selecting-and-serving-produce-safely.
There are several important regulations outlined in the Produce Safety Rule, but there are also certain criteria that can lead to commodities being exempt from compliance with the rule. One of those criteria is produce that is not considered a raw agricultural commodity; that is, the produce is identified as rarely consumed raw (RCR). Recently, FDA issued an Request for Information in the Federal Register Notice for commodities that they are considering characterizing as RCR and therefore exempt from the Produce Safety Rule :
black beans, great Northern beans, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, and pinto beans
garden beets (roots and tops) and sugar beets
dill (seeds and weed); eggplants
Cranberries, which are considered rarely consumed raw, can be seen displayed here on a grocery store shelf among pomegranates and berries, fresh produce commodities.
When it comes to purchasing commodities on the RCR list, consumers should be cautious, and treat these products accordingly. In other words, to reduce the chance of foodborne illness, all RCR commodities should be cooked thoroughly before consuming. Produce on this list – such as asparagus, potatoes, or cranberries – should also be stored separately from produce that is consumed raw—from the moment it is placed a shopping cart or bag to the moment it is prepared for eating. Separating these commodities can help prevent cross-contamination with other produce – such as berries, carrots, or leafy greens – that might be eaten raw.
Produce from farms that are valued at less than $25,000/ year and produce that is used for personal or on-farm consumption are also exempt from the Produce Safety Rule. Because of this exemption, fresh fruits and vegetables purchased from a local farmer’s market or small-scale producer may not adhere to the standards set by the Produce Safety Rule. For tips on safely purchasing from farmer’s markets see CFI’s previous blog post at: https://foodsafety.osu.edu/blog/april-6-2020-1125am/fresher-doesn%E2%80%99t-equal-safer.
Fresh produce is an important part of a healthy diet and understanding how produce is regulated can help consumer’s incorporate healthy fruits and vegetables into their diet without increasing their risk of foodborne illness.
There are several resources available to consumers wanting to stay up to date on food safety issues, and most of these services allow you to customize the alerts you receive!
- Sign up for CDC updates on food safety here.
- Sign up to receive FDA notices on recalls, market withdrawals, and safety alerts here.
- Sign up for USDA updates here.
- Browse recent articles or subscribe to Food Safety News here.
Lastly, check out the “Resources” page on our website for links to additional organizations and websites informing consumers about food safety basics and ongoing work to improve food safety for all!
 Office of the Commissioner, “Milestones in U.S. Food and Drug Law History,” FDA, Dec. 2019, Accessed: Dec. 02, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/fdas-evolving-regulatory-powers/milestones....
 Center for Food Safety and And Nutrition, “Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA),” FDA, Sep. 21, 2020. https://www.fda.gov/food/guidance-regulation-food-and-dietary-supplement... (accessed Nov. 02, 2020).
 Center For Food Safety And Nutrition, “FSMA Final Rule on Produce Safety,” FDA, Sep. 2020, Accessed: Oct. 22, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma/fsma-final-r....
 “Request for Information and Comments on Consumption of Certain Uncommon Produce Commodities in the United States; Establishment of a Public Docket,” Federal Register, Aug. 10, 2020. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/08/10/2020-16800/request-... (accessed Nov. 09, 2020).