Foodborne illness is a major health issue facing Americans. Between 6.5 million and 81 million cases of foodborne illness and as many 9,100 related deaths occur annually. Millions of illnesses and thousands of deaths in the United States can be traced to contaminated food. Illnesses from pathogenic bacteria appear to be increasing each year. The economic devastation of this disease is considerable, with an estimated $420 spent on direct medical costs and $7.3 billion attributed to lost productivity annually.
Americans expect many things from their food supply. They want variety and quality; and they want nutritious, safe foods at a reasonable cost. The definition of good quality can be varied depending upon the type of food and the individual's food preference. Some of the important characteristics of quality include wholesomeness, freshness, nutritional value, texture, color, aroma and flavor. To many consumers, safe food means that there will be no danger from pathogenic microorganisms, naturally occurring toxins and other potentially harmful chemicals which may be deliberately added to foods.
However, scientists generally agree that microorganisms pose a greater threat to human health than other sources of foodborne illnesses. Foods don't cause illness; bacteria and other pathogens do. However, raw foods of animal origin - meat, poultry, eggs, fish, shellfish - frequently are contaminated with bacteria common in the food chain. In other cases, healthy food handlers may contaminate food with bacteria common in the human body, or diseased food handlers may contaminate food with lesser common pathogens.
Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness and deaths associated with commercial food establishments have received widespread media and public attention. As a result, consumers have a heightened concern for the safety of commercially prepared foods. Furthermore, commercial foodservice establishments have a heightened awareness of their role in providing safe food to consumers.
The food and beverage industry ranks fourth in size among all the industries of the United States. Americans spend an estimated $145 billion annually for food and beverages consumed both in and out of the home. Presently, 85% of Americans consume at least one meal outside of the home during a two week period. It is expected that by the year 2000, one third to one-half of all meals consumed will be purchased through food service establishments. For Mississippi's approximately 16,600 commercial foodservice establishments, that equates to an estimated 2.4 - 3.7 million meals annually. An industry of this size cannot afford to lose the confidence of its clientele.
Whether raw foods are contaminated at the time of purchase or purchased foods are contaminated by food handlers, over time, mishandling can allow bacteria to survive, reproduce, or in some cases form a toxin in food or the human body. In short, food handling errors are almost always directly associated with the "dinner plate" microbial contamination that is a prerequisite for foodborne illness.
Health and well-being are highly valued in today's society and food is considered to play a major role. Food safety issues are complex and consumers vary greatly in their knowledge of the science of food safety. The Cooperative Extension Service through its federal, state and county partnership of professionals has as a goal to deliver food safety and quality educational programs. The programs teach clientele to minimize potential food hazards throughout food production, processing, distribution, preparation and utilization.