Tag Archives: foodborne illness

Research: Finesse, transparency key when reporting foodborne illness outbreaks

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: NIH Image Gallery via FlickrSalmonella bacteria invade an immune cell.

A mainstay of health reporting is covering outbreaks of foodborne illness, whether it’s salmonella in peanut butter (and its criminal consequences) or listeria in cantaloupes or ice cream. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a robust site documenting food-borne illness outbreaks, by the time the CDC cites a case on its website, the outbreak often already been in the news since potential outbreaks are first investigated by local and state health departments.

How do these smaller agencies decide how and when to publicize details about a suspected or confirmed outbreak? Continue reading

KC Star: Centralization of Big Beef also aggregates risk

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Mike McGraw’s recent investigation into “big beef” at The Kansas City Star begins with an interesting assumption: Regardless of their safety record, massive slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants introduce unacceptable systemic risk based on their size alone. Or, as he summarizes the argument, “When processing speed and volumes rise, so do the chances for contamination to be introduced and spread widely from its source to other meat inside the plant and at other plants that process it further.”

In particular McGraw focuses on mechanical tenderizing, a relatively new process in which tougher pieces of beef are penetrated with sharp metal blades to break up their fibers. The blades can also pick up E. coli from the meat’s exterior and ram it deep inside, where it’s less likely to be killed when the future steak is seared and served. Statistics are hard to come by, but because the practice is so widespread in the nation’s meat supply, the risk it introduces enjoys similar reach.

USDA data analyzed by The Star show that large plants until recently had higher rates of positive E. coli tests than smaller plants. Federal meat safety officials said the latest data show big plants are improving.

But the volume of meat a plant produces is a key issue. A USDA study published in March showed that from 2007 through 2011, E. coli positives at very small plants resulted, The Star found, in only 465,000 pounds of contaminated beef. A slightly lower rate of positive tests at large plants, however, produced more than 51 million pounds of contaminated beef.

Regardless, experts agree that most E. coli generally originates at larger slaughter plants, where pathogen-laden manure is a bigger problem because that’s where cattle are coming in from the feedlots.

Project follows the race to make bagged salad safer

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The latest investigation by California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting’s Deborah Schoch will make you think twice before ripping into a sack of spring mix, but her work about the myriad food safety challenges posed by bagged salads examines the industry’s struggle to develop technology powerful enough to overcome the existential threat posed by E. coli and friends.

The industry has made great strides since a 2006 outbreak linked to tainted spinach, she writes, but “It’s impossible to stop all pathogens from landing on lettuce and spinach leaves.” And once they’re on the leaves, it seems as if their spread is almost inevitable. They hide in gooey biofilms and resist powerful washes.

Thousands upon thousands of salad leaves are taken to a central plant, washed together, bagged and shipped. Even if only a few leaves are tainted, harmful pathogens can spread in the wash water — the modern salad version of the old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

“I would think of it as swimming in a swimming pool in Las Vegas with a thousand people I didn’t know,” said William Marler, a prominent Seattle-based food safety attorney.

Plenty of public and industry money has been aimed at the problem, Schoch writes. “The Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis, founded in response to the spinach outbreak as an industry-public partnership, has pumped more than $9 million into 54 research projects at 18 universities.”

Even the best research can’t reduce the risk of contaminated greens by 100%, scientists said. At Earthbound, Daniels says the ultimate goal is to achieve what scientists call a “5 log reduction,” the equivalent of pasteurizing milk. In short, if an unwashed lettuce contained 100,000 pathogens, the perfect wash system would knock off five “0s” and reduce the pathogen count to 1.

An added bonus? Schoch’s column on whether she (and the experts she talked to) feel like it’s important, or even salutary, to wash their bagged greens.

New stats: 1 in 6 get foodborne illnesses each year

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

More precise estimates than previously available find that one in six Americans suffer foodborne illnesses annually and that 3,000 die of such diseases.

The CDC says the newly released reports are the most accurate to date. They are “the first comprehensive estimates since 1999 and are CDC’s first to estimate illnesses caused solely by foods eaten in the United States.” According to the CDC’s release, these estimates are lower than those in the 1999 report, largely because of “improvements in the quality and quantity of the data used and new methods used to estimate foodborne-disease. ”

The articles are in the January 2011 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases:
Foodborne Illness Acquired in the United States—Major Pathogens (PDF)
Foodborne Illness Acquired in the United States—Unspecified Agents (PDF)

Other findings:

  • Salmonella was the leading cause of estimated hospitalizations and deaths
  • About 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths were due to seven pathogens: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E.coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens.
  • Nearly 60 percent of estimated illnesses, but a much smaller proportion of severe illness, was caused by norovirus.

The reports were the subject of a telebriefing this morning; the transcript should be available later.

Additional resources

Investigating, localizing salmonella outbreak

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

As some of you may have noticed, there’s an egg recall going on. It all began when the CDC’s PulseNet monitoring program noticed a fourfold jump in the number of salmonella cases being reported, which spurred investigations around the country. This jump is evident in the graph below. Don’t be fooled by the dropoff at the end, it has more to do with the reporting process than with an actual decrease in the number of salmonella cases (which clearly isn’t happening).

Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Health officials then traced it all back to a man outlets love to describe as a sort of rogue Iowa egg magnate and his Wright Country Eggs (satellite view?).

As we stand now, the tainted eggs could have been distributed through any number of channels, but constitute a tiny fraction of the national egg supply.

For reporters digging into this national recall story, or looking to localize it to their coverage area, AHCJ has a strong archive of foodborne illness resources.

Start with a classic, the AHCJ article “Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks ,” in which Thomas Hargrove details SHNS’ massive investigation into the nation’s food safety monitoring system. Not only is Hargrove’s how-to instructive, his actual findings are useful examinations of state and local food safety systems around the country.

For your own investigation, look at Mining NLM databases: PubMed, Medline and more and the rich set of resources in the sidebar to Hargrove’s story.

If you’re looking for solid numbers and the most up-to-date national context, see Covering Health’s recent post on the CDC’s lates foodborne illness data, as well as our examination of 2009 foodborne illness rates.

Other relevant Covering Health posts include:

Schneider: FDA lacks resources to keep food safe
CDC assembles rogues gallery of food bugs
Private food auditors didn’t stop outbreaks
Lax oversight, complex supply chains aid outbreaks