Tag Archives: foodborne illness

Investigating, localizing salmonella outbreak

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

CDC releases 2007 foodborne illness numbers

In the latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC has released the 2007 numbers on foodborne illness in the United States. Norovirus (39 percent) was the most common culprit, followed by Salmonella (27 percent). In terms of illnesses caused, poultry led the way, followed by beef and leafy greens. In the majority of the 1,097 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness, no agent was identified – a fact the CDC attributes to the small scale of many of those outbreaks. Here’s a breakdown of what investigators managed to find:


Those looking to dig a little bit deeper into the numbers should consult this four-page PDF, which breaks it all down by contaminant, food, number of outbreaks and number of illnesses caused.

Resources for covering food safety

Tip Sheets



Stadium concessions rack up health violations

ESPN’s Paula Lavigne examined 2009 health department inspections from the 107 stadiums that host MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL games in the United States and Canada. The resulting report may keep you from indulging in your favorite ballpark food.

At 30 of the venues (28 percent), more than half of the concession stands or restaurants had been cited for at least one “critical” or “major” health violation. Such violations pose a risk for foodborne illnesses that can make someone sick, or, in extreme cases, become fatal.


Photo by Katie Spence via Flickr

An interactive map lets you see the venues based on the number of violations there; rolling your mouse over the location tells you the percentage of vendors found in violation and gives some information about the kinds of violations that were found.

The same information, compiled by Lavigne and Producer Lindsay Rovegno, is also available in a text format broken down by state.

Many of the excerpts cite instances in which food was not being kept at appropriate temperatures and a few are related to pests, but there are a few more unusual examples:

  • At the Jobing.com Arena, where the Phoenix Coyotes play, “inspectors spotted an employee scooping ice with his bare hands instead of using scoops.”
  • At Dodger Stadium, there was mold growing inside an ice machine.
  • At Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium and at the Pepsi Center in Denver, inspectors found flies in bottles of liquor.
  • At Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, inspectors found an employee’s half-eaten hamburger in a warming unit.

Another interesting note: Food inspectors aren’t always visiting unannounced nor are they always visiting when concessions are open. In Chicago, inspections are done when the stadiums are empty and no workers are preparing or serving food. At Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, inspectors must “submit a list of employees’ names and make an appointment a few days in advance.”

Reporters who have a major sports venue in their community might want to see how it stacks up against others, what kinds of violations have been found and do some further reporting.

Resources for covering food safety

Tip Sheets



Popular salad option a possible culprit in outbreak

Bagged romaine lettuce, a time-saving option for many shoppers, is suspected in the latest E. coli outbreak that has caused illness in at least 23 people, reports Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post.


Photo by Muffet via Flickr

Layton addresses the question of whether pre-cut and bagged produce is more dangerous than whole greens and why they “represent a disproportionate number of recalls.”

An FDA official says it is easier to trace bagged produce than it is whole produce, which might account for the difference. But the article also reveals that some practices involved in the processing of pre-cut and bagged produce could be more likely to contaminate lettuce:

Most processors of fresh-cut produce remove the outer leaves and core the heads of lettuce in the field, where cutting utensils can come into contact with soil and spread contamination from the dirt to the crop, [microbiologist Michael] Doyle said. In farming areas, especially in a region near cattle farms, it is not unusual to find E. coli in the soil.

(Hat tip to Susannah-Fox.

From Covering Health

•  Little recent progress on foodborne illnesses
Schneider: FDA lacks resources to keep food safe
High cost of foodborne illness broken down by state

Tip Sheets
Lifting the shroud: Using multiple-cause-of-death data
FDA Reform: The Time Has Come (Nancy Donley presentation)
Why Is It So Difficult to Prevent Foodborne Illnesses? (Michael Doyle)


Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks
A selection of stories about salmonella

Web sites

Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy
Outbreak Alert! Database
Make our Food Safe Coalition

Little recent progress on foodborne illnesses

The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report contains some early numbers on foodborne illness rates in 2009. The data, NPR health blogger Scott Hensley writes, aren’t promising, and it looks like most infection rates haven’t really improved since 2004. A transcript and audio of the April 15 media briefing is available.

The report comes with data for the 10 states monitored by the CDC’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network; they’re also broken down by age. To demonstrate just how variable the infection rate is, we’ve pulled numbers for two of the most common foodborne illnesses, salmonella and campylobacter.


AHCJ resources

Tip Sheets


Web sites

AHCJ Award winners

Health News