For much of the general public, the local health department is the place that inspects restaurants and assigns letter grades based on cleanliness. In reality, of course, the health department works on everything from climate change to STI prevention—but during the month of September, health officials may want to embrace public perception and emphasize their food inspection activities.
September marks the 21st annual National Food Safety Month, sponsored by the National Restaurant Association. First celebrated in 1994, the event is designed to heighten awareness about the importance of food safety education. Every year, National Food Safety Month introduces a new theme, and provides free training activities and posters to the restaurant and foodservice industry to help reinforce proper food safety practices and procedures. This year’s theme, “Let it Flow,” focuses on the flow of food through restaurants. Each week examines a different aspect of the food preparation process, including:
- Week 1: Receiving
- Week 2: Storage
- Week 3: Thawing and Holding
- Week 4: Preparation
- Week 5: Service
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) are sickened, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of preventable foodborne illnesses. Common pathogens spread by food and beverage include norovirus, salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli, and Listeria. Common symptoms of foodborne illness, also called food poisoning, include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and fever. Some illnesses can even result in death.
Fortunately, foodborne illness can be prevented through proper food safety. According to CDC, 100 years ago typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and cholera were common foodborne illnesses—but through improvements in food safety such as pasteurization, safe canning, and disinfection, such diseases have largely been conquered. Simple steps to promote safe food handling and preparation include knowing how different types of foods should be stored, how they should be thawed and to what temperatures they should be cooked, and how to safety prepare and serve meals. Numerous educational resources, including infographics, videos, and activity kits are available for download from the National Restaurant Association, to aid local health departments in their own awareness campaigns.
Local health departments should be sure to include vulnerable populations, such as young children and the elderly, in their food safety awareness and education. These populations are most susceptible to negative outcomes when infected with a foodborne pathogen. Innovative educational campaigns, such as a New Jersey health department food safety calendar designed and illustrated by schoolchildren, can reach unexpected audiences and have overwhelmingly successful results.
Another important population to target is those with food allergies. Food allergies, often considered a “hidden disability,” are abnormal responses to a food triggered by the body’s immune system; sometimes these responses can be so severe, they cause death. Some of the foods most likely to trigger allergic reactions include milk, eggs, seafood, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Local health departments should strengthen their educational campaigns around food allergies and work with retail food establishments to develop food handling practices that prevent cross-contamination, thereby ensuring safe dining experiences for everyone.
Additionally, NACCHO has a number of resources available to support local health departments in their food safety planning and programming—not just during National Food Safety Month but year-round. NACCHO works with local health departments to improve food safety and prevent the illnesses that are estimated to cost more than $3,000 annually in hospitalizations, and between $20 and $40 billion each year in lost productivity.
Featured NACCHO resources include:
- Food Safety Toolkit: The NACCHO Food Safety Toolkit is a free, online collection of public health resources including presentations, fact sheets, drills, evaluations, protocols, templates, reports, and training materials. Public health professionals and other stakeholders can use these tools to inform and improve their work in food safety. The toolkit is regularly updated with new resources.
- Retail Program Standards Mentorship Program: The mentorship program provides opportunities for local health department staff to learn about the Retail Program Standards through active participation and training, to share experiences and develop tools and resources related to the Retail Program Standards, and support the ongoing effort to increase the use of the Standards nationwide. NACCHO just wrapped up its fourth year running the mentorship program and will be accepting applications for a fifth cohort beginning October 1. Check back for updates.
- Food Safety Policy Statements: NACCHO policy statements, determined by the Board of Directors, are a reflection of the organization’s public health advocacy. A number of food safety policy statements are available on subjects such as Foodborne Disease Outbreak Response and Diagnostic Testing for Enteric Diseases.
- Food Safety Podcasts: A recent NACCHO podcast explores the roles local health departments play in ensuring food is safe to buy, cook and eat; it also examines the challenges some health departments experience related to food safety. Download and listen to the podcast now.
- Raw Milk Webinar Series: The Raw Milk Webinar Series includes two installments related to the sale and regulation of raw milk around the country. Part I focuses on the legal aspects, while Part II interviews professionals who have responded to recent outbreaks.
- Second Edition of the CIFOR Toolkit for the Guidelines for Foodborne Disease Outbreak Response: The second edition toolkit aids in the implementation of the second edition of the Guidelines for Foodborne Disease Outbreak Response, released in 2014. The toolkit furthers the ability of state and local health departments to understand the contents of the Guidelines, to conduct a self-assessment of outbreak detection and investigation procedures, and implement appropriate recommendations from the Guidelines. The publication is available for download on NACCHO’s website.
- Food Safety Leader’s List: Food Safety Leaders have the opportunity to provide input on NACCHO’s food safety positions and advocacy efforts that help to shape policy at local health departments across the nation; they also receive updates on food safety news, policy updates, events, and call-to-action items. NACCHO is currently working to formalize its Food Safety Leader’s List into a virtual community of practice that facilitates peer-to-peer sharing and learning. Anyone interested in becoming a Food Safety Leader should email NACCHO’s food safety project team.
For more information:
- Food Safety Program (NACCHO)
- Foodborne Illness: What You Need to Know (FDA)
- Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (FDA)
- Food Safety (CDC)
- Food Safety (USDA)
- Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards (FDA)
- NACCHO Retail Program Standards Mentorship Program (NACCHO)
- Food Safety Resources (NACCHO)
- Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response
- Allergies (FoodSafety.gov)