Foodborne illness outbreaks can have serious health consequences for customers. The involved food businesses also often face high costs as well as significant reputation damage.
Each day, almost 500 New Zealanders fall ill from food poisoning, according to the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI). Foodborne illness can cause mild to severe symptoms, ranging from stomach cramps through vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, and/or fever to dehydration.
However, foodborne illnesses are preventable by implementing strict food safety measures.
Six of the Most Common Foodborne Illnesses
Foodborne illnesses or food poisoning are any diseases caused by consuming contaminated food. These foodborne illnesses can be initiated by a variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, or toxins that might have contaminated food.
There are 250 foodborne illnesses identified to date. According to the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), the following bacteria and viruses are responsible for causing most of the foodborne illnesses in New Zealand:
Campylobacter is the most common cause of foodborne illness in New Zealand and can most often be found on raw chicken, raw red meat, and in raw milk. Illness from Campylobacter mainly occurs when the food is not cooked well enough.
A recent study found that more than 8 in 10 cases in New Zealand were infected with Campylobacter by preparing or consuming poultry.
Salmonella can cause gastro-intestinal illness and is most often found on raw meats and poultry, unpasteurised milk and dairy products, seafood, tahini or fresh produce. Food can also get contaminated when handled in unsanitary conditions or by infected people. Salmonella can spread on food when these are not stored at correct temperatures and not handled properly.
Coli (Escherichia coli)
The bacterium Escherichia coli, or E. coli, lives in the guts of people and animals and can contaminate food through human and animal faeces. Food hygiene measures are, therefore, essential to prevent or reduce contamination.
Listeria is an uncommon bacterium found in shellfish, pate, processed meats, and soft cheese that can cause listeriosis, an illness that is particularly serious for pregnant women and people with low immunity. This bacterium can grow in refrigerators.
The bacterium Bacillus Cereus can be often found in starchy food, such as rice, dried potato flakes or milk powder products. Bacillus Cereus can create harmful toxins at room temperature, for example, when food is cooled too slowly or not properly stored in a fridge.
The Norovirus is a very contagious virus that causes stomach or intestinal infection and is transmitted between humans or via contaminated food and surfaces.
Each of these bacteria or viruses spread differently, making thorough food safety measures so important. The Norovirus, for example, spreads via human contact whereas Salmonella and Campylobacter typically spread by improper storage and preparation of food.
How food gets contaminated along the supply chain
Contamination of food with pathogens can happen along the whole food supply chain: During food production, processing, distribution, and preparation.
Contamination can already occur during the food production on farms, i.e. during the growing of plants and raising of stock. The use of polluted water, for instance, can contaminate plants before harvest. Other examples are the intrusion of bacteria during milking processes or the absorption of toxins by fish or shellfish.
During processing, food products can get contaminated in various ways. Examples are the use of contaminated water for washing produce, improper hygiene practices of food handling operators or the use of incorrect dilutions of cleaning agents. Faeces can contaminate meat and poultry during the slaughtering process. Moreover, pathogens can spread on surfaces and utensils or in production machinery and storage units.
Food contamination can also happen during food transport, for instance through improper cleaning and disinfection between transport of different food products. The exposure of perishable foods to warm temperatures accelerates the growth of harmful organisms and can lead to spoilage.
Contamination of food during preparation can happen in industrial as well as private kitchens, for example, if food is thawed, cooked, cooled, or reheated incorrectly or by infected operators.
Once the food is contaminated, further improper food handling, such as undercooking or storing at incorrect temperatures, increases the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks.
The Five Key Measures of Preventing Foodborne Illnesses
Thorough risk management implemented at every stage of the different food handling processes is key to prevent foodborne disease outbreaks (read more on how to manage food safety risks).
To prevent foodborne illnesses and keep food safe, the World Health Organisation recommends the following five simple measures that can serve as a guideline during food production, processing, distribution, and preparation:
Regular sanitisation or disinfection of processing lines, preparation areas, utensils, storage units and refrigerators and between handling different ingredients is key to avoid the spreading of bugs. Using correct cleaning agents at the appropriate dilutions for these cleaning tasks is essential. Regular and proper handwashing procedures for food handlers are another important aspect of preventing contamination.
Separate raw and cooked food
Cross-contamination can happen when pathogens can migrate from one food to another. This can happen during food handling as well as storage. Separating raw and cooked food, particularly meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, can avoid or reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
Improper cooking temperatures can lead to foodborne illness as bacteria can grow in undercooked food. Thorough cooking of food and pasteurization of milk and juices are, therefore, essential to kill harmful bacteria. Temperature probes can help monitoring cooking temperatures to make sure that the food is safe.
Keep food at safe temperatures
As bacteria can spread in warmer temperatures, food should be always stored at correct temperatures (5°C or below) to avoid spread. Wireless temperature monitoring sensors can help to ensure that refrigerators are constantly running at the right temperature.
Use safe water and raw materials
The use of contaminated water or raw materials can cause foodborne diseases. This risk can be minimised using safe water, proper cleaning of raw materials as well as sourcing from trusted suppliers.
IoT sensors help maintain safe manufacturing conditions
Internet of Things (IoT) enabled devices help food businesses detect critical deviances that manual monitoring could miss. IoT temperature sensors monitor the temperature of refrigerators or even refrigerated warehouses, for instance, and can alert operators immediately if a cold storage unit is malfunctioning.
Another useful application of IoT sensors is the real-time monitoring of correct levels of ultraviolet light that is commonly used to kill bacteria and pathogens during food production.
In addition, the use of specific packaging, such as vacuum sealing, also hinders bacterial growth.
Food safety management systems help reduce foodborne illnesses
By implementing food safety plans and checklists, organisation eliminate or minimise the risk of foodborne illness caused by improper handling of food products. The Simply Safe and Suitable Plan offered by MPI, for example, offers food businesses a step-by-step guide to ensure food safety compliance. Regular staff training as well as internal audits can ensure ongoing food safety compliance.
Digital food quality management and compliance systems facilitate food safety management significantly by offering full and 24/7 transparency on compliance status as well as end-to-end traceability. This enables food businesses to initiate immediate corrective actions if non-conformances are detected, but also to prevent contamination by proactively managing food safety.