Lately, food safety seems to be top of mind with consumers. And, since they are your customers, that means it should be top of mind for you, too.

The risk of foodborne illness has increased markedly over the last 20 years, with nearly a quarter of the population at higher risk for illness today. Why has the risk of foodborne illness increased? There are several reasons.

Much has changed in what we eat and where we eat. A greater variety of foods are consumed, and more meals are eaten away from home. As more people become involved in preparing our meals, the chance for foodborne illness increases dramatically. In addition, the threats are numerous and varied. E. coli O157:H7 in meat and apple juice; salmonella in meat, eggs, vegetables and poultry; vibrio in shellfish; cyclospora on fruit; and cryptosporidium in drinking water are a few of the more common pathogens. All of these pathogens can be deadly, especially for people at high risk.

The reason for concern
Should the dairy industry be concerned about food safety? You bet we should.
Here are a few reasons why:

  • Outbreaks of disease in humans have been traced back to the consumption of raw unpasteurized milk and to pasteurized milk.
  • The few studies that have looked at raw milk clearly show that it contains several foodborne pathogens.
  • The presence of foodborne pathogens in raw milk and meat could contaminate milk processing and slaughter facilities.
  • The presence of foodborne pathogens in raw milk could result in bacterial toxins in milk.
  • Each day, raw, unpasteurized milk is consumed by dairy producers and their families, farm employees and their families and even neighbors.
  • Through the consumption of several types of cheeses, including ethnic cheeses manufactured from unpasteurized raw milk, many more people are exposed to these foodborne pathogens.
  • Pasteurization may not destroy ALL foodborne pathogens in milk.

For all of these reasons and more, dairy producers must strive to produce a safe, nutritious product each and every day.

Requires immediate attention
Food safety has been identified as an emerging public health hazard requiring immediate attention.

The challenges to providing a safe and nutritious food supply are complex. That's because all aspects of food production - from farm to fork - need to be considered. Not only must research be conducted to solve complex food safety problems, results of that research must be communicated effectively to producers and to consumers.

Given the considerable national/international demand for a safe food supply and the formidable challenges of producing and maintaining it, food safety research and educational programs have taken on a new urgency. To help address these critical needs, The University of Tennessee Food Safety Center of Excellence was recently established.

The Center provides a framework and an infrastructure for interdisciplinary research, teaching and collaborations between scientists with diverse expertise. Through the center food and soil microbiologists are collaborating with animal scientists, risk management and assessment, animal health, parasitology, molecular and nannotechnology scientists, physicists, and environmental engineers to tackle complex food safety problems.

The center focuses on these key areas:

  • Microbiological hazards associated with food production.
  • The resistance of foodborne pathogens to antimicrobials.
  • Development of novel strategies to prevent and control diseases of food-producing animals that impact food quantity and quality.
  • Development and dissemination of food safety educational materials.

Research and educational efforts that identify the potential on-farm risk factors will better enable dairy producers to prevent foodborne pathogens from contaminating dairy products before they leave the farm. A safe, abundant and nutritious milk and meat supply should be the goal of every dairy producer in the world.