You try to eat healthy, but the one thing you can't control is who has been handling your food and whether they are practicing adequate food safety. Each year, foodborne illnesses sicken close to 50 million Americans and lead to more than 130,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. A lot of these illnesses are caused by simple things like restaurant employees' failure to properly wash hands, cooking surfaces and fruits and vegetables.
Foodborne illnesses present a greater challenge to certain groups of people with reduced immunity, such as children younger than age 4 and people older than age 50. Food can also become compromised much earlier in the production process, and for this reason food producers are using a variety of means to keep our food safe.
One approach uses the concept of hurdle technology in which a variety of mild steps (hurdles) are used to limit microbial growth at each stage of production. These include combinations of weak acid treatments with gentle heating and reduced humidity, or alternating low heat and chilling treatment. The fresh-bagged salads you see at the grocery store are a good example of this. Vacuum-packed products, prepared under rigorous hygienic conditions and heated at lower temperatures, are another.
Other technologies include the addition of antimicrobial agents such as enzymes and other natural compounds that inhibit the growth of bacteria or prevent oxidation. Salt too is a very effective anti-bacterial in food. In fact, it is the oldest known food preserver. Salt is widely used in the production of all cheeses, cured meats and many fish dishes.
Salt preservation works by influencing the amount of water that all microorganisms require to survive and grow. The use of salt in controlling water means that the levels of other preservatives or processes can be reduced. This means that microbiological safety can be achieved with reduced heat, acidity and other preservatives. This results in a product of vastly improved taste and nutritional quality because of the improved retention of other nutrients.
However, as the federal government pushes companies toward lower salt content there are some concerns that it could affect food safety and increase the amount of preservatives that must be used. Many prefer salt as the more natural choice.
Fortunately, food safety is a leading concern of the Food and Drug Administration and its Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, and the newly appointed Deputy Commissioner, Frank Yiannas, who was previously Vice President of Food Safety at Walmart, and Director of Safety and Health at Walt Disney World.
Food safety is an ongoing challenge for an enormous and complex food system, and although challenges continually arise, exercising caution and attention in food purchasing, storage and preparation will minimize the risks. Remember to not only eat healthy but to also eat safely.