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July 27, 1999

Home-Based Food-Borne Illness

When several members of a household come down with sudden, severe diarrhea and vomiting, intestinal flu is often considered the likely culprit. But food poisoning may be another consideration.

A true diagnosis is often never made because the ill people recover without having to see a doctor.

Health experts believe this is a common situation in households across the country, and because a doctor is often not seen for this kind of illness, the incidence of food-borne illness is not really known.

A task force of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a private organization of food science groups, estimated in 1994 that 6.5 million to 33 million cases of food-borne illness occur in the United States each year. While many reported cases stem from food prepared by commercial or institutional establishments, sporadic cases and small outbreaks in homes are considered to be far more common, according to the April 1995 issue of Food Technology.

Cases of home-based food-borne illness may become a bigger problem, some food safety experts say, partly because today's busy family may not be as familiar with food safety issues as more home-focused families of past generations.

A 1993 FDA survey found that men respondents tended to be less safe about food practices than women respondents and that respondents younger than 40 tended to be less safe than those over 40.

For example, when asked if they believed that cooked food left at room temperature overnight is safe to eat without reheating--a very unsafe practice--12 percent of the men respondents (but only 5 percent of the women respondents) said yes.

And, in looking at age differences, the survey found that nearly 40 percent of respondents younger than 40 indicated they did not adequately wash cutting boards, while only 25 percent of those 60 and over indicated the same.

The increased use of convenience foods, which often are preserved with special chemicals and processes, also complicates today's home food safety practices, said Robert Buchanan, Ph.D., lead scientist for FDA's food safety initiative. These foods, such as TV dinners, which are specially preserved, give consumers a false idea that equivalent home-cooked foods are equally safe, he said.

To curb the problem, food safety experts recommend food safety education that emphasizes the principles of HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point), a new food safety procedure that many food companies are now incorporating into their manufacturing processes. Unlike past practices, HACCP focuses on preventing food-borne hazards, such as microbial contamination, by identifying points at which hazardous materials can be introduced into the food and then monitoring these potential problem areas. (See HACCP: Patrolling for Food Hazards in the January-February 1995 FDA Consumer.)

"It's mainly taking a common-sense approach towards food safety in the home," said Buchanan.

"Basically, consumers need to make sure they're not defeating the system by contaminating the product."

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