Sunday, November 6, 2011


Why is that almost all food related poisoning incidences are reported from the developed world? The much maligned developing countries do not "boast" of even a single major out break of food poisoning though there might have been occasional reports of minor nature. why is that tourists from Western world are afraid of visiting many poor countries in the world where majority of the population is concentrated? Obviously because they are afraid of polluted atmosphere, unsafe water and food, unhygienic habitats and unreliable medical facilities. But look at the mortality rate due to food poisoning! Very few deaths are attributed to food poisoning, most fatalities attributed to diseases, infectious as well other types. Is there any convincing scientific reason for such a paradox? 

There is always the temptation to correlate affluence with food poisoning but is there really such a relationship? No one is sure though circumstantial evidence do point out such a nexus. Most of the pathogenic bacteria involved in food poisoning are more frequently reported in animal foods like meat and egg and this naturally raises the question whether food poisoning has any connection with increased meat production and consumption. Since there are no cultural constraint in mixing meat products and non-meat products as most consumers in the West are meat eaters, scrupulous segregation of these products may not happen in many cases and such a situation can cause cross contamination from these sources. Similarly irrigation water used in cultivation can become contaminated in areas where slaughter houses and meat handling facilities are located and migration of bacteria from water into fruits and vegetables is a distinct possibility.  This can explain frequent reporting of contamination of fresh produce such as Spinach, Tomato, Peanuts, Cucumber etc in the US.

One must recall the recent out break of virulent E.coli related food poisoning which killed several persons besides causing damage to the health of hundreds of people in Europe, boasting of high standards of living and modern living facilities and still it is not clear what really caused such an incidence. Though the blame game was going on for some time regarding the culprit for the incidence, finally culminating in putting the blame on an Egyptian consignment of Fenugreek imported for sprouting, the moot question is why it did not happen in the country of origin and why the "monster killer" waited till it landed in Europe to bare its fangs? This is scary situation where no one seems to know which pathogen is going to strike when and where! If a small out break like this could claim several lives in Europe with high standards of living, what if the same kind of poisoning happens in a thickly populated country like India or China? 

Most recent food poisoning was reported from the US where the innocuous Cantaloupe became the carrier for Listeria, another little monster with deadly credentials, killing 13 people and affecting many people who were hospitalized. Imagine the fate of many people who had the misfortune to eat this fruit when it is known that the food poisoning manifestations from Listeria can appear several weeks after the consumption of the contaminated fruit. Though several theories float around regarding the reason for this fruit to get contaminated, no one seems to have a sure answer. It is admitted by Microbiologists familiar with the episode that finding out the reason may not be easy. Probably the contamination must have occurred due to improper washing process allowing the bacteria to migrate into the inside of the fruit. Fortunately due to recall of about 300,000 cases of the suspected fruit the damage was some what contained. The stark question that confront countries like the US is whether prevention of such episodes can be more effective than spending time and resources to chase the problem after such episodes are allowed to occur. 
Food poisoning is reported to affect an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths and such food-borne illnesses cost the nation's economy about $152 billion annually in health-care expenses and lost productivity. It is time to reinvent the meaning of food safety and new rules are necessary to ensure food does not become contaminated due to callous handling to limit illnesses. The last word on Cantaloupe tainting has not been heard because there may be thousands of households in the country holding the contaminated fruit in their refrigerators waiting to be consumed without the consumers unaware of the consequences awaiting them if and when they eat them. Mandatory rules, not guidelines, are needed to force the industry to adopt correct practices to prevent illnesses arising out of contamination of foods with a plethora of more and more virulent bacteria.


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