The recently released Netflix documentary, titled, Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food, has unearthed several unpalatable truths about the U.S. food system, raising a vital question: is the country’s food supply as safe as we believe?

From the tragic 1993 Escherichia coli outbreak that claimed four lives, to the pervasiveness of Salmonella in poultry and recurring foodborne illness outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce, the documentary paints a sobering picture of the U.S. food supply. The film brings to light leaders who knowingly distributed contaminated food and underscores the urgency for revamping food processing regulations.

Questioning the Efficacy of Regulations

Regulations undoubtedly have their place. They provide guidelines and norms that manufacturers must adhere to ensure food safety—but are they sufficient on their own?

In manufacturing operations, including those outside the food industry, the gold standard is Six Sigma, which is a system aiming for just 3.4 defects out of a million opportunities. However, even Six Sigma may fall short in the food processing context. When a large food manufacturer produces 200 million meals, Six Sigma would still allow for 680 defects, potentially translating into 680 instances of foodborne illnesses.

Food manufacturers’ dilemma of enhancing their food safety protocols when even the highest standards fall short can be addressed by an arsenal of invaluable strategies, such as pathogen environmental monitoring, regular equipment cleaning, and the judicious use of effective disinfectants like chlorine dioxide.

Chlorine Dioxide: A Lifeline for Leafy Greens and Produce

The use of disinfectants like chlorine dioxide can help prevent contamination leading to deadly food safety incidents; for example, the 2018 the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region of the U.S, which sickened 210 people and claimed five lives. An FDA investigation found the outbreak strain in an irrigation canal near a large cattle feedlot, concluding that the irrigation water containing E. coli was the most likely cause of contamination of the romaine lettuce.

While Poisoned poses critical questions about the need for regulatory measures to prevent such contamination, there are immediate steps food processors can take to mitigate microbial food safety hazards. In the case of the 2018 E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, a robust water treatment protocol could have potentially prevented illnesses and fatalities. A proactive program with consistent testing and monitoring, including the use of powerful disinfectants like chlorine dioxide, can drastically reduce the risk of foodborne E. coli outbreaks.

Combating Salmonella in Poultry

The documentary also shines a spotlight on the prevalence of Salmonella in poultry, featuring footage of hatchery operations and interviews with staff from Perdue. While the filmmakers' data may not represent the full scope of poultry production, it powerfully conveys the frequency of Salmonella contamination in poultry products.

Regulations alone may not be the answer to the issue of widespread Salmonella contamination in poultry, but proactive measures can make a difference. Alongside vaccinations and proper water treatment, research indicates that using chlorine dioxide could be a game-changer for reducing the presence of foodborne pathogens. For example, a 2016 study published in the Korean Journal for Food Science of Animal Resources found that chlorine dioxide gas can effectively control Salmonella on eggshells.

The same disinfectant was later found to eliminate avian influenza A (H7N9) virus on surfaces, according to a 2022 study published in Biosafety and Health. This finding underscores the potential benefits of chlorine dioxide for poultry producers beyond Salmonella elimination, as it can be effective for controlling infectious viruses as well.

Resetting the Pathogenic Environment in Food Facilities

Another crucial factor to consider in the ongoing battle against foodborne pathogens is the potential for high pathogen counts in food processing environments, which can increase the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak. Chlorine dioxide fumigation offers an effective solution to food manufacturers grappling with elevated pathogen levels.

As a potent oxidizing agent, chlorine dioxide disrupts the cell walls of microorganisms, preventing their proliferation and effectively “resetting” the pathogenic environment. Regular fumigation can significantly mitigate the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak, ensure safer food production, and protect consumers. The use of chlorine dioxide fumigation as a proactive sanitization step is more than a reaction to high pathogen counts—it is a powerful preventive measure that underlines a commitment to food safety and consumer protection.

PureLine Solutions offers regularly scheduled chlorine dioxide fumigation treatments for food manufacturers as a regular part of their sanitation programs.

A Continuous Battle for Food Safety

The war against pathogen contamination can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task for food safety professionals. A single misstep can lead to contamination, with severe repercussions for public health. However, these issues often arise from chronic disregard for food safety procedures, lax internal monitoring, and ineffective treatment programs. With a firm commitment to continuous improvement and the adoption of proven solutions like chlorine dioxide, the U.S. food sector can ensure the safest food supply in the world. Food safety must go beyond regulation; the industry must take responsibility for the safety and health of consumers.