ECU environmental health program committed to public safety


William Hill (Photo by Chuck Baldwin)

By Kathy Muse

A recent outbreak of a serious food-borne infection called Listeria led to 17 deaths and 84 illnesses in the United States, prompting a recall of contaminated cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo.

Food-borne infections such as Listeria are dangerous attacks on public health, according to East Carolina University environmental health professor William Hill. He said education is key to helping the public stay healthy and avoid food-borne illnesses.

Attention to food safety is critical, Hill said. “It impacts everybody everywhere, every day.”

Knowledge of what causes contamination and how to prevent it can be a matter of life and death. With that in mind, Hill and the ECU Department of Health Education and Promotion, College of Health and Human Performance have provided the following information:

Causes of contamination

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. Foodborne illnesses may be caused by viruses, bacteria and parasites, as well as toxic agents such as poisonous mushrooms and pesticides on fruits and vegetables. Poor sanitation and preparation can also lead to contamination.

The bacterium that causes Listeria is commonly found in soil and water.  Animals can carry the bacterium and can contaminate food of animal origin such as meats and dairy products.

Produce is rarely implicated; however, Listeria has been found in sprouts in 2009 and celery in 2010.

“When we consider the farm- to- fork food system, (harvesting, storage, transportation processing, packaging) fruits and vegetables can become contaminated at different stages,” said Hill.

Preventing foodborne illness

Simple steps can be taken to prevent foodborne illness.  Hill recommends the following:

  • Keep uncooked meats and poultry separate from vegetables and from cooked and read to eat foods.
  • Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk, and do not eat foods that have unpasteurized milk in them.
  • Wash hands, knives, countertops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
  • Consume perishable and read to eat foods as soon as possible.

Hill said that winning the battle for public health related to foodborne illness required everyone to be vigilant and proactive.

“The environmental health profession motto is ‘prevention is better than cure,’” he said, asserting ECU’s commitment to protecting public health. The ECU environment health program is the only completely online graduate program in the nation offering an environmental health degree.

“We will continue to work to protect the public health by controlling and preventing those factors in the environment which may cause ill health or reduced quality of life,” Hill said.

“Nothing is more important than the public’s health.”