Millions of Americans celebrate the Fourth of July with favorite foods grilled in secret barbecue sauces and side dishes made from traditional family recipes. But nothing puts a damper on a celebration like foodborne illness.
Even when food safety rules are followed, foodborne bacteria can sometimes sneak into dishes made by hand that require no additional cooking such as potato and egg salads, cream pies, and sandwiches as well as meats. Food poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe abdominal cramps, and mild fever.
One of the most common causes of food poisoning is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which produces a wide range of toxins, including staphylococcal enterotoxin type E—associated with outbreaks in the United States and other countries.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans—48 million—get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year. Of that group, staphylococcal food poisoning causes an estimated 240,000 illnesses, 1,000 hospitalizations, and 6 deaths annually.
A USDA scientist developed a test that specifically detects Staphylococcus aureus in foods. The new test is faster, more sensitive and less expensive than standard tests.
“The current test detects active toxin only 50 percent of the time compared to the test, which detects it 99 percent of the time,” says Reuven Rasooly, a chemist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). “The new test also detects toxins within 5 hours compared to 48 to 72 hours for other tests.”
In addition, Rasooly said the new test can distinguish between active toxin, which poses a threat to public health, and inactive toxin, which does not. It can be used by food makers to help keep products safer before they’re sold and by public health officials to trace the source of foodborne outbreaks.
The test, which specifically targets Staphylococcus aureus, is not commercially available. ARS has applied for a patent for this technology and plans to use it to develop additional tests that detect other foodborne toxins that make people sick.
For food consumer resources on keeping your Fourth of July celebrations safe, visit USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for a variety of tips.