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.
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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.
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Michael Moss and Andrew Martin of The New York Times reviewed several major recent outbreaks of foodborne illness and discovered that auditors, private contractors who are often paid by the companies they inspect, “failed to detect problems at plants whose contaminated products later sickened consumers.”
“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education,” said Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle consultant who has worked with companies nationwide to improve food safety.
Audits are not required by the government, but food companies are increasingly requiring suppliers to undergo them as a way to ensure safety and minimize liability. The rigor of audits varies widely and many companies choose the cheapest ones, which cost as little as $1,000, in contrast to the $8,000 the Food and Drug Administration spends to inspect a plant.
Even when private auditors detect violations, Moss and Martin reported, the companies are under no obligation to correct them.
Robert A. LaBudde, a food safety expert who has consulted with food companies for 30 years, said, “The only thing that matters is productivity.” He added that “you only get in trouble if someone in the media traces it back to you, and that’s rare, like a meteor strike.”
Some companies have refused to use the nation’s 200 auditing corporations or numerous independent contractors, instead preferring strict internal controls.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Craig Schneider reports that, because of the long shelf-life of peanut products and the difficulty and complexity of recalling all products made with tainted peanut butter, Peanut Corp. of America’s salmonella outbreak could be sickening consumers for two more years.
The process of identifying those products and ensuring their removal has been complicated and confusing, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of food safety at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“We’re really concerned. This is not over yet,” Sundlof said. He said the outbreak could last as long as products are around, possibly as long as two years.
That’s because peanut products, seemingly harmless as they linger in homes and the marketplace, can have a relatively long shelf life, officials said. Vegetables and meat, which spoil relatively quickly, must be thrown away.
In the wake of recent food-borne salmonella outbreaks, Justina Wang of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle found that a combination of a complex supply chain and lax federal oversight has allowed a steady stream of dangerous pathogens to slip into the food supply.
Given the complexity of today’s food processing and distribution networks, Wang found that many health experts don’t see an end to the outbreaks.
“Absolutely it will continue to happen until big changes are made,” said Sanford Miller, former director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and a senior fellow at the University of Maryland. “The food industry has just exploded over the last several decades, and unfortunately, the FDA has not been able to keep up with this.”
Pathogens can lurk in food for months and by the time someone becomes ill and is tested and diagnosed with a potentially dangerous food-borne illness, officials said, the outbreak may already be in full swing. Once the outbreak is detected, even more time passes as product recalls are put into place.
Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dennis G. Maki, M.D. takes a look at foodborne illness, the sources of recent outbreaks and official attempts to control the food-based spread of pathogens.
Once again, we must ask ourselves how foodborne disease can develop in 76 million residents of one of the world’s most technically advanced countries each year, causing 350,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths and adding $7 billion to our health care costs, despite intensive regulation of food production and distribution.
Industrial food production and importation, the American fondness for eating at restaurants and centralized distribution have helped to multiply the damage caused by any single outbreak, Maki said.
Maki suggested several possible measures to combat the spread of foodborne pathogens:
- Requiring bar codes for all commercial food so its origins and contact points can be quickly and easily traced.
- Changing the feeding practices of cattle, poultry and swine and reduce reliance on practices like anti-microbial food supplements that may promote the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Improving hygienic food-preparation practices in homes, restaurants and hospitals and giving local health departments the power and means to monitor these practices.
- Irradiating high-risk foods because “the CDC has estimated that irradiation of high-risk foods could prevent up to a million cases of bacterial foodborne disease each year in North America.”
Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks
Thomas Hargrove of Scripps Howard News Service wrote about foodborne illness outbreaks in a 2007 article for AHCJ. He found that some states did a good job of diagnosing and tracking down the causes of outbreaks, while other states “are virtually blind in detecting outbreaks of food illness.”