Opportunities for contamination increase during food processing. Foodborne pathogens like E. coli, botulinum toxin, and salmonella can increase and spread as a result of improper food handling and hygiene. The result is an unsafe increase in microbial growth that can result in potentially fatal outcomes.
Hamburger is a prime example of how contamination can occur. The process of making a burger can be risky business. To start with, dangerous bacteria are naturally found in the gastrointestinal tract of ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) and the microorganism can be easily spread from the cow to meat by fecal transfer and sloppy hygiene practices. Also consider that one contaminated cow can lead to a massive outbreak. Meat cut from hundreds of different cows are ground together before it reaches consumers – if any one of those cuts is compromised by time, temperature, or exposure to pathogens, it can contaminate the entire lot.
One of the most devastating foodborne illness outbreaks occurred in 1993 – as a result of E. coli-laden meat sold by Jack in the Box - The outbreak killed seven children and sickened over 700 people nationally. After the outbreak, the government took a closer look at its food inspection policies and mandated industry establishment of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans and introduced routine USDA microbial testing.
Food contamination is not limited to meat and poultry. In fact, contaminated fruits and vegetables cause more foodborne outbreaks. Leafy greens and spinach in particular have risen in the ranks of high-risk foods. There have been multiple spinach outbreaks involving virulent strains of E. coli. Fruit and vegetable contamination is generally traced back to cross contamination from animal feces. Microbes are spread by feces through irrigation, contaminated soil, or dispersal through the air.