Apr 28 2011
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Michael Batz Q&A: New Food Safety Report

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Researchers at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute have identified the top 10 riskiest combinations of foods and disease-causing microorganisms, providing an important tool for food safety officials charged with protecting consumers from these costly and potentially life-threatening bugs.

The report, Ranking the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health, lists the number of illnesses costs, and overall public health burden of specific microbes in particular types of food — such as Salmonella in poultry and Listeria in deli meat.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Michael Batz, lead author of the report and head of Food Safety Programs at the Emerging Pathogens Institute. Here are some of the questions and answers from that discussion.

NewPublicHealth: What prompted the Institute to work on this report?

Michael Batz: The fundamental problem is that every year, tens of millions of people get food poisoning and thousands of these people die. This is obviously a significant problem and it’s a problem that persists in part, because we have this complex and massive global food supply. There are hundreds of thousands of firms involved and of course, food can be contaminated anywhere from the farm to the fork-that could be somewhere halfway across the world or in the kitchen of a neighborhood restaurant. On top of that complex system, we have a very fragmented and piecemeal food safety system in this country comprised of federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and thousands of state and local government agencies each with their own responsibilities and with not enough coordination among them.

NewPublicHealth: Your research looks at ten combinations of foods and pathogens. If you work toward eradicating these specific combinations, are you likely to achieve some success in dealing with food-borne illness?

Michael Batz: To some extent, yes. There really is a big difference between these major problems and the lesser problems--which is not to say the lesser problems shouldn’t be concern[ing] because at the end of the day, if you’re severely ill, it does you no good to think, “Well, at least I don’t have one of the bad ones.” It’s all a matter of perspective--and our perspective is to focus on that big picture. What our report helps to suggest is that we hear about outbreaks all of the time associated with various products and it lends a perception that there’s just contamination lurking in every corner. And what we find is that despite these problems that happen, that a relatively small number of these hazards account for a significantly large portion of the overall burden.

If we want to do anything about reducing those illnesses, we have to address those pathogens in specific foods. Though, in order to create interventions, we need to identify both the foods and bacteria, viruses and parasites that are causing those illnesses. Our goal with producing this top ten is to say, where we as a society or as the federal government should be focusing more of our effort in a way that is defined not just by where the most recent outbreaks happen but trying to take an objective data-driven approach to assessing where those hazards are.

NewPublicHealth: And how could that protect people more than just say, focusing on everything, focusing on every pathogen, focusing on every food that becomes contaminated?

Michael Batz: The government with its limited resources can’t do everything. We have to set priorities and we have to make decisions about where we want to devote the most energy. And it makes sense to do that in a way that is most protecting consumers by essentially saving the most live. We’re looking at this in a way that asks, where are the most lives being saved, which are the risks that we really need to focus on?

NewPublicHealth: Now that you’ve identified these ten combinations, what would be early steps for taking your findings and putting them into action?

Michael Batz: We do identify a number of specific policy recommendations based on these findings such as a cross-agency Salmonella initiative given that it’s associated with products regulated by both the FDA and USDA and given that it really hasn’t appreciably declined in the last ten years. We also noticed that four of the top ten pathogen combinations are risks to pregnant women.

NewPublicHealth: Are there opportunities to incorporate your recommendations into the Food Safety and Modernization Act passed last year?

Michael Batz: I think so, yes. In the big picture, the [new] food-safety law is really targeted primarily at FDA. It gives the agency a mandate to follow a more risk-based approach. So, I think our methodology can help inform some of those decisions and show how we can start thinking about these problems in this kind of systematic way.

NewPublicHealth: What is a sometimes overlooked concern you think needs more attention when it comes to food-borne illness?

Michael Batz: The potential for these outbreaks to cause chronic conditions on health. [For example] sometimes after people have campylobacteriosis, [after eating a food contaminated with campylobacter] they may come down some months later with Guillain Barré Syndrome which is a neuromuscular disorder that can lead to paralysis, and people never working again, and even death. So when we talk about outbreaks, sometimes those kinds of impacts of food-borne diseases are simply not part of that discussion. Our work here really re-iterated to me the importance of understanding those impacts because the long-term impacts of food-borne illness [can] go far beyond just having a tummy ache and diarrhea for a few days.

NewPublicHealth: While your research is directed at federal officials, are there aspects of the report that industry could take a look at and itself, use your findings to be able to lower the risk to consumers by themselves taking a look at some of these combinations of pathogens in foods?

Michael Batz: Well, I hope so. You know, you need to have good policies and good practices in place from the time the field is watered until the food is cooked in the kitchen-and there are obviously a lot of parties along that chain. In our report, we do recommend that towards the end of that chain, businesses should focus on improving their food-safety culture and ensuring that they are following good and established practices. There are some industries that may look at this report and question it at first, whether their product is responsible as we are suggesting they are. But I hope that when they do look at the numbers and look at the analysis, they come to recognize the scope of this problem and the scope of the challenges they may face in helping to reduce the burden. I think it’s easy to look at this report and suggest that we’re trying to point fingers here, and that’s not really our goal. Somebody has to be number one, and when we do the analysis, that ends up to be poultry. Certainly, the poultry industry has been wrestling with salmonella for some time. I don’t think it will be a surprise for them to hear that their products-their chicken or turkey-is associated with illness, but I hope that this does help inform their understanding in the bigger picture.

NewPublicHealth: What’s next for you in this research field?

Michael Batz: Glenn Morris [director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute] and myself are currently working on another food safety project funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The project, "Developing and applying a descriptive framework for analyzing food safety resources" is examining how federal, state, and local food safety agencies expend their resources. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officers [ASTHO], the Association of Food and Drug Officials [AFDO], and the National Association of County and City Health Officials [NACCHO], are partners in this project, and we hope to publish our results later this year.

Read previous NewPublicHealth.org Q&As with newsmakers and difference makers in public health.

Tags: Food safety, Food and Drug Administration, Food Safety, Q&A, Research