NIFA Research is working to make every day World Health Day
April 7 is World Health Day and food safety is the primary focus—and with good reason. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that, in the United States alone, every year there are 48 million foodborne illnesses and 3,000 deaths from unsafe food.Most of these illnesses are the result of bacteria, such as Salmonella, that finds its way into various types of food. About half of all microbial foodborne illnesses are associated with animal foods, and about half from produce. CDC reports that most illnesses come from leafy greens, which could be contaminated on the farm, during processing, at retail or in the home. Chemicals, such as mercury in fish or mycotoxins from molds are also a concern.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funds many projects to improve food safety. These include finding new ways to prevent food contamination, new detection methods, new ways to destroy pathogens to make food safe, and education strategies for food handlers and consumers. NIFA also provides funding to universities to develop education programs for kids in K-12 and higher education.
One area of recent concern is the impact that climate change could have on food safety. Global climate change is projected to result in an increase in global temperatures, stronger storm systems, and increased frequency of extreme weather events and extended dry periods, leading to flooding or drought. These changes have implications for food safety, including likely increases in microbial foodborne diseases, many of which tend to peak when the weather is warmest; increases in mycotoxin (toxic chemicals produced by molds) contamination, possible increases in mercury in fishery products, and a potential for increased use of pesticides and veterinary drugs, could all contaminate the food supply. In addition, increases in the frequency or intensity of extreme weather could result in disruptions to food distribution systems by damaging existing infrastructure or slowing food shipments if waterways are low due to drought. This could result in food spoilage.
NIFA is funding research to investigate the potential for climate change to impact food safety. One such project involves investigating the toxicity of mycotoxins on plants. Mycotoxins can cause cancer or have other toxic effects in animals and humans. In the United States, regulations are designed to prevent mycotoxins from entering the food supply. Climate change is likely to alter the geographical location where mold growth and mycotoxin production occur, increasing the risk of contamination and crop destruction. NIFA research will help to reduce the risk associated with mycotoxins on plants.
To improve understanding of the growing threat of climate change to health, the Interagency Group on Climate Change and Human Health, a working group of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, has developed a draft Climate and Health Assessment. The scientific assessment is part of the National Climate Assessment and is called for under the President’s Climate Action Plan. The draft assessment, which includes food safety impacts, is being released for public review and comment.
So, think about what is in your meal. Where did the ingredients come from? Were they properly—and safely—handled along the food supply chain? On World Health Day, know that NIFA, through its support to land-grant universities and other federal partners, is committed to ensuring that the United States has the safest food supply in the world.