Environmental Health & Food Safety
The air we breathe, the water we drink and use, and the food we consume have big impact on our well-being. Our interactions with the environment are complex and not always healthy - we come into contact with chemicals, radiation, microbes, and physical forces on a daily basis.
Considering that one in six Americans experience a food-related illness each year, there is room for improvement in combating foodborne illnesses. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illness costs the nation as much as $4 billion annually, hospitalizing 128,000 people; 3,000 of whom die from their illness.
The Coalition's Work
Health departments across the country are committed to safeguarding the population with interventions ranging from responding to emergencies, educating and training various audiences, and developing new standards and guidelines for their communities. Local health departments are an essential part of the process to ensure that food is safe to eat at home, at community events, in restaurants, and in schools. They work with state, local, and national partners to prevent, identify, and respond to outbreaks of food-borne illness by inspecting restaurants, grocery stores, daycare facilities, hospitals, schools, and some food manufacturing plants to ensure safe food handling practices and sanitary conditions. Many local health departments are operating at a diminished capacity due to budget pressures on state and local governments. In the area of food safety, that means there are fewer inspectors and trained food service professionals—from restaurants and school cafeteria workers to street fair vendors—able to identify risks and prevent food-borne illnesses.
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Early and effective screening can make a big difference in the health of a community, especially regarding lead poisoning in children, as evidenced by new programs in the city of Portland, located in Multnomah County, Oregon. “In Portland and the vicinity, we have 80% of the lead poisoning caseload statewide,” said Perry Cabot, Senior Program Specialist, Environmental Health Services, Multnomah County Health Department. “But until recently, we could only speculate as to the number of actual confirmed cases.” Good data, coordinated systems and improved patient follow-up mean that Portland is ensuring that more children with lead poisoning are getting the treatment they need.
Ever since 1876, when Chicago’s first health commissioner, Oscar Coleman De Wolf, called for sanitary inspectors to inspect the city’s slaughterhouses and confiscate tainted meat, the Windy City—like most jurisdictions—has battled foodborne illness largely through a gaggle of inspectors randomly checking 16,000 food establishments. Sometimes, inspectors get leads from the public—some hot, some not—which occasionally can prevent or halt a foodborne illness outbreak.
After getting food poisoning from a Newport Beach, Calif., restaurant, Southern California restaurant critic Brad A. Johnson declared in the Orange County Register that had Orange County adopted the same restaurant letter grading system that nearby Los Angeles County put in place in 1998, he would not have gotten sick. Wrote Johnson, “If this restaurant had opened in Los Angeles instead of Newport Beach, it would have to display a letter grade of C, or possibly B, in the front window – and I never would have dined there.”