The role of climate change in foodborne illnesses
Do you have big cooking plans this Thanksgiving? Us too! We love cooking when the holiday season rolls around, but did you ever think that climate change is something you would think while prepping your food? Well, the raw ingredients in your kitchen contain harmful microbes that can cause foodborne illnesses, and climate change has been linked to an increase in these diseases.
As the global temperature rises and rainfall patterns change, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other harmful vectors flourish. These changes in climatic factors increase disease transmission efficacy and improve survival rates of these vectors (1). In other words, climate change has allowed these harmful microbes to evolve and be better equipped to cause diseases. On top of that, they are more resilient and harder to kill.
So what should you be on the lookout for? Good question. Below are just a few examples of agents that may be altered by climate variability in the United States (1, 2). All of them can potentially be found on the foods that we consume.
- E. coli O157: this specific strain of E. coli is particularly prone to climate change. We ingest this microbe through contaminated foods such as raw or undercooked ground meat products and raw milk (3).
- Salmonella: Salmonella is caused by a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tract of animals. Just like E. coli O157, Salmonella can cause foodborne illnesses through consumption of contaminated ingredients.
- Campylobacter: almost all raw poultry you see in the grocery store contains this microbe. This bacteria causes foodborne illnesses by cross-contaminating other foods and by surviving in undercooked meat. This makes Campylobacter one of the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States.
Overall, changes in climatic factors will be the largest culprit of food-related illnesses and mortality (4). This accounts for under-nutrition, communicable and non-communicable diseases, as well as vector-borne diseases.
The good news is that these foodborne illnesses are highly preventable!
While climate change may improve the environment in which these microbes thrive, we can take steps to prevent foodborne illnesses from happening in our own kitchens. The USDA recommends the Be Food Safe prevention steps (5):
- Clean: Wash your hands and cooking surfaces frequently.
- Separate: Don't cross-contaminate your foods. Keep your meats and veggies separate.
- Cook: Cook ingredients to their proper temperatures.
- Chill: Refrigerate foods promptly.
By following these guidelines, the vast majority of these harmful microbes can be removed or killed. Keep yourself and your family free from foodborne illnesses!