It may be unexpected and dangerous intruders such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and biotoxins in your meal, says a new report from the Institute of Food Technologists, a non-profit scientific society based in Chicago.
You might find some of these numbers hard to stomach: American public health officials estimate 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths occur each year as the result of foodborne illnesses. Yet, only 18 percent of these can be attributed to known causes. Although about 200 are transmitted by food, many more have yet to be identified.This all sounds rather unpalatable, but it shouldn't leave you stewing in worry about your victuals, says one of the report's authors, Michael Doyle, director for the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
"From my perspective, the U.S. food supply is considered to be one of the safest in the world. But we could always do better based on the estimated cases of foodborne illness that occur each year in this country," he says.
The report addresses a number of areas: procedures from farm to table to reduce illness because of mishandling of food; processes to recognize and respond to outbreaks and to reduce their scope; and suggestions to enhance monitoring, data collection and risk assessment.
The authors say the ability to link food to human illness is improving, and they stress the need for increasing surveillance of foodborne diseases to help determine their causes, and improve controls and prevention.
However, the report also notes the ever-changing characteristics of food, technology and microorganisms make it unlikely Americans will ever be free from the risks of foodborne illnesses.
As surveillance methods of foodborne illnesses and the ability of science to recognize their causes improves, you can expect to hear more reports about food-related outbreaks -- even as food safety measures improve.
Douglas Archer, another contributing author, is professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. He says there are three main things consumers can digest from this report.
The first is not to be all that surprised or shocked when new food pathogens are identified.
"This is a natural process. It's nothing new. It's called molecular evolution. It's been going on for a long, long time, and it will happen again," Archer says.
The second point is, "there are good systems in place to protect the food supply. They're not perfect, but a lot of work is being done to make them a whole lot better."
Finally, food doesn't make people sick; people make people sick.
The report notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates more than 50 million of the 76 million foodborne illnesses in the United States each year are the result of viruses.
"Well, viruses can only come from one place. They have to come from humans," Archer says. "That means that somebody is not paying attention to good personal hygiene. That's not a new problem, but it's certainly one that can be fixed. Simply wash your hands, and wash them well."
So, while food experts do their best to improve the safety of food production, you have to accept a big helping of responsibility, too. Use good judgment and common sense where food is concerned.
"If you go to a restaurant and the place looks like a pig sty from the get-go, you probably don't want to eat there," Archer says.
If you go grocery shopping and buy perishables such as meats, chicken and fish, don't leave the groceries sitting in your car for hours on a summer day.
And while he doesn't have the data to prove it, Archer believes most cases of foodborne illness happen at home.
"It would be hard to prove that, because people don't turn in Mom if they get sick. If they're sick at a restaurant, it's a whole different situation. Restaurant outbreaks are more visible because more people are involved and they're more likely to call the health department," Archer says.
Doyle notes that between 20 percent to 30 percent of Americans still eat raw or undercooked ground beef despite the threat of the dangerous bacteria Escherichia coli 0157:H7.
"If you could make people stop making mistakes with food, probably 90 to 99 percent of the problem would go away," Archer concludes.