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Executive Summary

A colloquium was convened by the American Academy of Microbiology to discuss issues relating to the safety of the food supply in the United States and to chart directions for future research. The colloquium was held in Nashville, Tennessee, August 14-16, 1998. The principal findings of the colloquium are summarized below.

There is no widely accepted definition of safe food. Food safety is evaluated relative to acceptable levels of risk. Food safety problems evolve with changes in society, economy, lifestyle, and eating habits. Many of the foodborne pathogens themselves are evolving, and new pathogens and strains are emerging that are adapted to new environmental niches. The process of improving the safety of the food supply must recognize and respond to these new challenges.

Until recently, surveillance efforts to track the incidence of foodborne disease in the United States have been uneven. Typically, more information is collected and available for epidemic outbreaks than for sporadic cases of foodborne illnesses. Estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the annual incidence of foodborne disease in this country range from 6.5 million to 76 million cases. Annual mortality has been estimated to be as high as 5,000 to 9,000. With the establishment of the FoodNet surveillance system in early 1996, more and better quality data are now being collected.

There is growing recognition of the importance of applying advances in the field of microbial ecology to the analysis of problems relating to food safety. The focus on particular pathogenic microorganisms is being broadened to include the normal microbiota of foods.

The interactions among microbes, plants, animals, and humans must be analyzed at each step along the farm-to-table colloquium. Given the plasticity of microbial evolution, it is important to determine if particular food processing practices are exerting selective pressures for the emergence of resistant pathogenic strains. The increasing refinement of risk assessment techniques presents new opportunities for systematically evaluating challenges to food safety and developing targeted interventions for resolving them. Risk assessment can be used to set research priorities and provide a framework for interdisciplinary efforts to improve food safety.

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