The Movie “Contagion” Can Teach Prevention of Food Borne Illness

Republished from a Blog written September 6, 2018.

You should see the movie!

It is a chilling reminder of how rapidly infectious diseases can spread and the devastation that can occur. Now we have Coronovirus COVID-19.

The story is about a virus that spreads across the world killing billions. Food borne epidemics are occurring all the time. Over the last decade, there have been nearly 1000 food borne illness outbreaks in the USA every year. Two thirds of the time we don’t even know what caused the epidemic.

Graph Outbreaks

Usually there is a single source. But it is poor hygiene that spreads the infectious agent.  Without spilling the bottom line, “Contagion” highlights these critical facts.

Two major issues contribute to any kind of disease epidemic:

  1. We are an international community. Diseases from remote areas of the world can spread to major metropolitan areas overnight. As an example, in the food industry, much of our produce comes from outside our borders. In our desire to experience the world, we travel and live in exotic places and eat exotic foods. Sanitary conditions and practices are not the same worldwide. The German E. Coli epidemic in 2011 started in Egypt, infected and killed people from over a dozen countries.
  2. We are simply not conscientious enough about hygiene. Whatever we touch can be a source of infection. The COVID 19 pandemic educated us that the virus can live on cardboard and/or plastic for up to 24 hours. In the movie, the contaminated person touched door nobs, drinking glasses, a phone, gambling dice, a camera, the elevator button, a notebook, and a credit card. Every touch had the potential to transmit the disease to another person. The movie alleges we touch our face 3000 times per day. While not confirmed by medical research that I am aware of, when we touch our faces, our mouths etc. we bring those bacteria or viruses onto or into our bodies, potentially causing disease.

As it relates to food safety, when we prepare or serve food either at home or in a restaurant, we assume responsibility for another person’s health.

We emphatically need to wash our hands more frequently.

Unfortunately, even with hand washing, our hands are not sterile, so glove use when, preparing food is critical.

We absolutely need to use gloves when handling ready to eat foods. It is a scientifically identified best practice and part of the FDA Food Code. Using gloves further reduces the possibility of transmitting disease. I know. I practiced clinical medicine for nearly 40 years. I can’t imagine examining patients without using gloves.

In upcoming blogs, I will explore choosing the right gloves, glove use, preventing cross contamination and more. Stay tuned.


Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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