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Studies Show that Climate Change Affects Foodborne Illness Rates. Physicians Warned.

A new article in the Journal of American Medical Association publication, JAMA, warns physicians on how climate change affects foodborne illness rates.

Infectious-disease physicians from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the University of California Davis (UCD) pointed out that the last decade ranked 9 of the 10 warmest years on record. Other environmental impacts such as droughts, severe heat, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods have impacted ecosystems, with a downstream effect of human illness.

Things are Heating Up!

If it seems like things are getting warmer, you may be onto something. According to the article, “global average temperatures between 2011 and 2020 increased to 1.1 °C (approximately 1.9 °F) above preindustrial levels and are estimated to increase to 1.5 °C (approximately 2.7 °F) by 2040.”

Global average temperatures between 2011 and 2020 increased to 1.9 °F above preindustrial levels and are expected to rise by 2.7 °F by 2040.

With these rises in temperatures, certain downstream effects may affect human illnesses and seasonal changes to risk-factors.

How Climate Change Affects Foodborne Illness

You might be asking yourself, how exactly climate change affects foodborne illness in the United States. The answer is simpler than you might think. Most pathogens responsible for foodborne illness are sensitive to temperature. This is why the infamous “danger zone” is closely monitored, as bacteria rapidly multiply between 40 °F and 140 °F.

Most pathogens responsible for foodborne illness are sensitive to temperature.

Changes in temperature are affecting seasonal trends and frequency of infectious diseases.

But how does this affect food?

It all comes down to how foodborne illness spreads.

Factors Affecting Foodborne Illness

Certain key factors have a great impact on the incidence and spread of foodborne illness.

These factors can be broken down into three main aspects.

  1. The abundance, growth, range, and survival of pathogens in crops, livestock, and the environment.
  2. The transfer of these pathogens to food.
  3. Human exposure to the pathogens.

Foodborne germs thrive in warm, wet, weather conditions.

How Common is Foodborne Illness?

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, each year nearly 1 in 6 Americans become sick with a foodborne illness. About 3,000 will die from that illness.

Each year nearly 1 in 6 Americans become sick with a foodborne illness.

These illnesses usually peak in the warm summer months.

There are an average of 70 foodborne outbreaks in the United States each month. About two of those will result in a food recall.

This number can exceed 100 per month during the summer, with recall-related outbreaks increasing to six per month.

With temperatures staying longer in the “warm summer range,” it is no surprise that climate change affects foodborne illness.

Earlier, Longer, and Hotter Summers Caused by Climate Change Affects Foodborne Illness

Increased temperatures extend the period of these foodborne illness peaks. With certain bacterial infections causing increased cases during historically warmer months, adding the increased variables of earlier, longer, and hotter summers will only increase the impact.

For example, Cyclospora, a parasite transmitted through food or water contaminated with feces shows up in recalls and outbreaks related to imported fruits in vegetables. These cases usually see a peak in early June.

Campylobacter (usually associated with undercooked meat), Vibrio (usually associated with raw or undercooked shellfish), Salmonella, and E. coli infections usually peak mid-July.

Cyroptosporidium, Listeria, and Shigella infections find their peak in mid-August.

These ranges have extended historically over time.

Other Factors of Climate Change Affects Foodborne Illness

Several other factors influenced by climate change affect foodborne illness. Here’s how to manage these risks.

Increased Temperature at Outdoor Gatherings

Hot food needs to stay hot and cold food needs to stay cold. This is the golden rule of food safety. When food is left outside of those temperatures, it should be discarded after two hours. For ambient temperatures above 90 °F, this countdown clock lowers to one hour.

This complicates picnics, bar-b-ques, and outdoor gatherings. The hotter it is outside, the faster food spoils.

Keeping one eye on the thermometer and another on the clock can make you feel like you are going cross-eyed.

Offset these temperatures by planning on serving food immediately. If away from home, use insulated bags to keep cold foods cold and sterno buffet setups to keep hot foods hot. Bring just enough food so that you do not have to keep leftovers cold.

Increased Temperature During Travel

Depending on how far you live from the grocery store, increased temperatures could affect the safety of the food you purchase. Hot temperatures in the car start that two-hour clock. Over 90 °F in the car? You now have one hour. That time period only gets paused when it is stored safely in your home refrigerator and restarts as soon as you remove it to begin preparing the food.

Offset these temperatures by bringing insulated bags with icepacks to keep your cold items cold while in transit. Store warm items, such as rotisserie chicken or other ready-to-eat hot foods in a separate insulated bag to stay warm. Put up cold grocery items as soon as you get home.

Power Outages Effect Food Safety

Heat waves, severe storms, and wildfires can cause power outages. A review of 2022 federal data showed that power outages linked to severe weather had doubled over the previous two decades. Losing power puts your refrigerated items at risk.

To offset this issue, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A full freezer can keep food safe for 48 hours. If half full, this reduces to 24 hours.

Your refrigerator, on the other hand, can only keep food safe for up to four hours. But only if you do not open the door. After four hours, place perishable food in an insulated container with ice to keep it below 40 °F. If food has been without power or a cooling source for more than four hours, items such as meat, dairy, leftover, and cut fruits and vegetables should be thrown out.

When in doubt, throw it out!

Does Your Family Have a Plan for Dealing with How Climate Change Affects Foodborne Illness in Your Household?

Have rising temperatures impacted the way you handle food safety? Are insulated bags a new staple in your grocery shopping experience? Does your family have a plan for dealing with increased risk of foodborne illness?

Stay in Touch with Make Food Safe!

If you’d like to know more about food safety topics in the news, like Studies Show That Climate Change Affects Foodborne Illness Rates, check out the Make Food Safe Blog. We regularly update trending topics, foodborne infections in the news, recalls, and more! Stay tuned for quality information to help keep your family safe, while The Lange Law Firm, PLLC strives to Make Food Safe!

By: Heather Van Tassell (contributing writer, non-lawyer)

Heather Van Tassell

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