This week, large recalls of peanut products and outbreak of E. coli O157:H7in beef serve as a reminder that the food we consume is often processed on a large scale and comes from far-off places. The increasing rate and scope of foodborne outbreaks reminds us that we must be mindful of our food choices and informed about current issues in food production.
Let’s step away from the ‘typical’ US foodborne outbreaks and examine a little-known emerging food pathogen that highlights how even the healthiest ‘superfoods’ should be subject to close scrutiny as we investigate the safety of our globalized food system.
Açaí berries are a trendy go-to among health foodies. Trumpeted for their potential antioxidant qualities, these South American
berries have infiltrated food markets in the form of juices, concentrates, and nutritional supplements. What could be wrong with these healthful berries?Recently, raw açaí juice was found to be contaminated with the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, the microbe that causes Chagas Disease. The active transmission of the parasite, which is normally spread by the bite of a thatched-roof dwelling bug called the rejuvid bug, is rarely seen in the US but it is a significant public health problem in South America. Once infected, Chagas yields long-term health effects. Throughout the Americas an estimated 8 to11 million people are infected and ~50,000 deaths are associated annually. While transmission by bug bite is rare in the US, it is estimated that approximately 100,000 people living in the US may currently be infected.
While many people don’t experience noticeable symptoms, the microbe infects heart tissue, wearing down heart muscle and leading to heart failure years after the initial infection.
In recent years, Chagas has been shown to be transmitted through a new route— food. Instead of biting, the parasite-harboring rejuvid bugs are accidentally processed during the production of Acai products, the resulting juice is contaminated with this cold-tolerant parasite.
So what is to be done when a rarely discussed disease is transmitted in a completely new way into a trendy juice product headed for your local grocery store?
The FDA has taken steps to regulate Açaí juice production, but not all sources have been or can be regulated.
This example is one of many that illustrate the important link between our changing food systems and the emergence of disease. Until recently, cantaloupes were not associated with Listeria and Salmonella and free association didn’t link “beef” to “E. coli.” We live in a changing and increasingly globalized food system, and these changes have far-reaching implications for our health. The way we produce food is also changing the way microbes interact with food. These changes are complex and so are the effects they have on health.
We need to look at these changes and critically ask: Regardless of what the label says, is a globalized food system healthy, safe, and natural?