Reflections on National Food Safety Month
Food Safety at Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH)
With National Food Safety Month coming to an end in September, we reflect on the roles JCPH and other public health departments across the United States play to help improve health outcomes, including food safety. In Jefferson County, our Environmental Health Specialists inspect more than 2,000 retail food establishments each year to ensure the food being processed and served is safe for you and your family. In addition to the regulatory piece of our work, we see our role as educators first and foremost. We serve as a go-to resource for operators and community members alike.
But why does public health focus on food safety in the first place? The number one goal of our retail food inspection program is to reduce foodborne illness in the community. This goal drives all our regulation, inspection and education efforts. For instance, we regularly provide local, timely information and data about how and why foodborne illnesses occur. For some people, foodborne illness may be just 24 hours of diarrhea, vomiting and discomfort, but for others who are immune compromised — young, elderly or pregnant individuals — foodborne illness can be a much larger risk to health.
Unpacking the Data
This infographic summarizes the foodborne illness complaints received and investigated in Jefferson County during 2016. Last year, we received 209 complaints, a 67 percent increase from 2015. (This may be because food safety and restaurant outbreaks were very prevalent in the news during that time, allowing consumers to wonder more about their own exposures and the handling of their food).
When complaints are received in our office, we quickly gather information on where and when the affected person ate, when they became ill, what their symptoms were and any other exposures. We also capture a 72-hour food history in conjunction with what they ate at the establishment in question to see if any other regulated facilities could have been an exposure or cause of the illness. See the infographic for the five top reported foods in Jefferson County.
Moving down the infographic, the top preparation processes reported section outlines the preparation types conducted at the establishment for the reported food. This information — among several other items — are captured when the Environmental Health Specialist either reaches out to the establishment’s manager/owner for an interview, or the complaint triggers an onsite investigation where in-person interviews and observations are made. During these onsite investigations, we look for possible contributing factors, such as items that are known to cause foodborne illness. For a foodborne illness to occur, three factors — a contamination factor, amplification (or growth) factor and a survival factor — are present, allowing pathogens to find their way into food and grow. Most of the time, it is challenging to find all three, but we will piece together the puzzle by identifying at least one or two of these factors. The graphs in the infographic represent the top factors that were noted during investigations for 2016.
Lastly, we investigated 30 confirmed foodborne illnesses that indicated a retail food exposure, a 30 percent increase from 2015. A confirmed foodborne illness is when a person — when ill with symptoms consistent with a foodborne illness — goes to the doctor and submits a sample, usually a stool sample, to be tested for foodborne illness pathogens. After these are tested at a laboratory, the results are sent to the medical provider. If the results say they are positive for a foodborne illness, those results are sent to their provider and are also reported to the state public health department. In Colorado, certain infectious diseases must be reported by law to investigate and protect public health and transmission. Once these are received by the state health department, local health departments are notified of these confirmed cases and the person is interviewed to assess what their exposures could have been to lead to the illness. If the person ate at a retail food establishment within their incubation period (the time from when they got sick to when they had a certain exposure) an onsite investigation occurs.
Always Learning: Ongoing Training and Technical Assistance
Many times, it is very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a foodborne illness. In the Environmental Health Epidemiology program, we provide technical assistance and training to our colleagues to develop our observational and interviewing skills to assist with investigations. We also analyze our data along with state and national level data to identify trends and plan for interventions for commonly identified contributing factors. This all works together to achieve our main goal of reducing foodborne illness in our community.
For more information on foodborne illness and their pathogens, please visit the CDC webpage at https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html
Are you a restaurant owner or operator looking for food safety classes for your employees? Do you want to look up inspection reports for your favorite restaurant? Visit our website here for information on online training, our Team Up for Food Safety recognition program, retail food inspections and all things Food Safety in Jefferson County.