The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual report on food borne illness on Friday. Drawing on data submitted from all states and territories through the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System, the report aims to track foodborne illnesses’ primary sources and how they spread.
Released just weeks after 36 million pounds of turkey were recalled for salmonella contamination, the news is especially pertinent—though not completely reassuring.
The results come from 2008 reports (the most recent year for which the information is complete) and offer a mixed bag of results. The following is a look at the good, the bad and the hopeful.
The CDC reports that the number of 2008 outbreaks was 10 percent lower than the annual average (1,151) reported for 2003-2007. The number of related illnesses was down 5 percent, from 24,400 in 2008.
Though outbreaks declined overall, the number of salmonella, E. coli and listeria infections were higher in 2008 compared with the 2003-2007 average. Salmonella is also the most deadly pathogen among them. It is responsible for the more than half the multistate outbreaks in 2008, causing 9 of the 17 outbreaks that crossed state lines.
Moreover, the CDC cautions that the report offers limited data because many cases of foodborne illness go unreported. Though the official numbers are 23,152 confirmed illnesses, 1,276 hospitalizations and 22 deaths reported in 2008, the CDC estimates the tally to be closer to 48 million illnesses, 125,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually in the United States.
Of the 481 outbreaks for which a food source was identified, only 4 percent resulted in product recalls.
The CDC predicts new efforts by the Food and Drug Administraiton (FDA) might curb salmonella cases, according to Food Safety News. Some of those efforts, implemented in the last several years, include new shell-egg regulations and lower salmonella-tolerance limits for young chicken and turkey carcasses.
According to the FDA, updated regulations require farms with greater than 5,000 hens to “adopt preventive measures and to use refrigeration during egg storage and transportation.” (The regulation does not apply to producers with fewer than 3,000 laying hens, who contribute less than one percent of U.S. eggs.).
Other rules implemented since 2008 require producers to:
• Buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for Salmonella bacteria.
• Establish rodent, pest control, and biosecurity measures to prevent spread of bacteria throughout the farm by people and equipment.
• Conduct testing in the poultry house for salmonella enteritidis. If the tests find the bacterium, a representative sample of the eggs must be tested over an eight-week time period (four tests at two-week intervals); if any of the four egg tests is positive, the producer must further process the eggs to destroy the bacteria, or divert the eggs to a non-food use.
• Clean and disinfect poultry houses that have tested positive for salmonella enteritidis.
• Refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees F during storage and transportation no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid (this requirement also applies to egg producers whose eggs receive a treatment, such as pasteurization).
Among the 868 outbreaks with a known single location where the contaminated food was eaten, 52 percent could be traced to food consumed in a restaurant or deli—just one more reason to cook for yourself and practice safe food handling.