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3 Unique Risk Factors for Foodborne Illness in California

Each year on average, approximately 3,000 Californians get sick from eating contaminated food.

Graph showing foodborne illnesses in California

If you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know it isn’t a pleasant experience. Many foodborne illnesses cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, and nausea. The most common illnesses can last between one day and two weeks.

Most people recover on their own within a few days. But in extreme cases, foodborne illness can have life-changing consequences. Since you never know how your customers will react, it’s vital to do everything you can to prevent food poisoning.

There are five main reasons a foodborne illness outbreak could occur at a retail food establishment:

  1. Keeping food too long in the temperature danger zone (41-135°F)
  2. Undercooking food
  3. Cooking with dirty utensils or equipment
  4. Poor personal hygiene
  5. Using food from unsafe sources

In addition to these issues, California has some unique risk factors for foodborne illness. Those risk factors include plastic pollution, contaminated leafy greens, and power outages that can affect food storage.

1. Plastic pollution and seafood

In 2015, the University of California – Davis led a study on plastic and fiber pollution in the ocean. The researchers sampled 140 fish from markets in Indonesia and California. They found pieces of plastic and cloth fibers in 25% of fish.

Where does oceanic pollution come from?

Plastic and fibers can get into the ocean in a number of ways. The majority of pollutants come from agricultural runoff, industrial waste, sewage, and trash people drop on the ground.

Some pollution can also come from everyday tasks like washing clothes. University of California researchers discovered that fleece jackets can shed fibers during washing that eventually end up in the ocean.

How does plastic pollution affect humans?

The research is ongoing about whether the level of pollutants in seafood is actually harmful to humans. But there are some cases when seafood in a particular area may have a higher risk for dangerous levels of pollution — like if there’s been a chemical spill.

2. Contamination risks to leafy greens

Farmers in California and Arizona grow approximately 90% of all leafy greens produced in the United States. That’s about 50 billion servings of greens each year.

What are leafy greens?

The term “leafy greens” refers to vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, spinach, and more. They’re generally the kinds of food your mother made you eat before leaving the table.

But occasionally they can do more harm than good. Leafy greens have a higher risk of spreading foodborne illness because they’re almost never cooked before they’re eaten.

E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce

You probably heard about the E. coli outbreaks in 2018 and 2019 that came from contaminated romaine lettuce. In two of those outbreaks, the FDA traced the infected lettuce back to farms in California. One outbreak was traced to a manufacturer in Santa Barbara County. The other outbreak originated in Salinas.

How do leafy greens get contaminated?

One of the biggest challenges associated with growing bacteria-free leafy greens is keeping the growing area away from potential sources of contamination. For example, if there are animals on or near the farm where the plants are grown, manure can infect the irrigation water with E. coli, which then passes it to the greens.

3. Power outages and food storage

California faced more power outages in 2019 than usual. Pacific Gas & Electric, a utility company that serves 16 million people in northern and central California, held temporary power outages in areas with extreme fire risk. The outages were intended to keep electrical equipment from sparking wildfires.

Power outages can be a big challenge when you’re trying to keep perishable foods cold. But if you’re prepared, you can help protect it from spoiling.

How long does food last in the fridge and freezer without power?

If you keep the doors closed as much as possible during a power outage, food will stay cold for about four hours in the fridge and 24-48 hours in the freezer. If you know about the outage in advance, you might want to transfer as much food as possible to the freezer.

To avoid having to open the fridge and freezer, you can move any food you plan to use during the outage to coolers. Make sure to include ice in the coolers.

How to keep your freezer cold without power

The easiest way to keep your freezer cold without electricity is to pack it with ice. If possible, use blocks of ice or dry ice. According to the FDA, 50 pounds of dry ice should keep an 18-cubic-foot, fully stocked freezer cold for two days.

When to throw food out

After the power comes back on, check the temperature of your freezer and fridge. If they’re at 40°F or below, the food stored inside is safe to eat. If frozen food is between 32 and 40°F, refreezing the food inside can reduce its quality. To ensure the best flavor, you may want to serve it instead.

If it’s 41°F or above, the food is in the temperature danger zone. Throw away any food that’s been in the danger zone for four hours or more. If you’re not sure how long it’s been in the danger zone, throw it out.

Should you close your business during a power outage?

Electricity is important for food establishments for obvious reasons. Not only does it help keep food from spoiling, it may be required to run cooking equipment.

Depending on how long you expect the power to be out, you may be able to work through it. The Washington State Department of Health provides a few suggestions for how food service businesses can deal with a power outage:

  • Install a generator that can provide backup power in an emergency
  • Use a refrigerated truck to keep food from spoiling while the power is out
  • Create an “emergency menu” of foods that don’t need extensive preparation or cooking

Tips for preventing foodborne illness in California

In general, the best way you can protect your customers from getting sick at your establishment is to follow these basic food safety guidelines:

For establishments in California, we’ve provided additional prevention tips below.

Risk Factor Prevention Tips
Ocean pollution
Contaminated leafy greens
  • Wash leafy greens with cold water before cutting or eating them
  • Never use a recalled product
  • Store recalled products away from usable food to keep the contamination from spreading and employees from accidentally using them
Losing power to a fridge or freezer
  • Move as much food from the fridge to the freezer as possible
  • Put ice blocks or dry ice into your freezer to help it stay cold longer
  • Store food you intend to eat during the power outage in a cooler packed with ice
  • Throw out any food that has been in the temperature danger zone (41-135°F) for four hours or more

By following the prevention tips above, you will help keep your customers safe — and build your company’s reputation for providing quality products. Learn more about preventing foodborne illness in our online food manager training course.

— Jessica Pettit

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