The Rise of Foodborne Illnesses in the United States

foodborne illness prevention

Avoiding foodborne illnesses is one of the most important, if not the most important issue in a food safety professional’s work. If you stay informed on the number, severity, and different types of food poisoning cases breaking out across the United States, you may feel there are so many cases of food-borne illnesses that such illnesses must really be on the rise. However, some experts dispute this assumption. Many say that there are the same or perhaps fewer numbers of outbreaks than there used to be. There is simply an increased amount of media attention for outbreaks of food poisoning.

Of course, the industry of food safety media outlets have always covered such outbreaks in detail. However, mainstream media outlets are starting to cover outbreaks if they are quite severe and especially if they involve a major company. You may remember the outbreak of norovirus that Chipotle had to deal with recently. Perhaps the best way to approach the issue of foodborne illnesses is as a question and answer piece.

How many foodborne illnesses are reported every year? As you might expect, the numbers of foodborne illnesses in less developed countries like India are much greater than the United States. However, you may be surprised to learn just how common outbreaks are. According to the federal government, one in six Americans will get food poisoning of some kind every year. Over 100,000 of these cases are severe enough that people are hospitalized. 3,000 people die from foodborne illnesses in the United States on a yearly basis.

What is the difference between standard food poisoning and more severe outbreaks that cause deaths? The foodborne illnesses known as food poisoning are usually caused by the norovirus. The norovirus can cause painful and extremely unpleasant diarrhea and vomiting, but it usually does not cause any more severe symptoms. Norovirus cases are also often limited to one family. The huge outbreaks you often hear about in the news are usually from listeria, salmonella, and E coli. There are an average of two such outbreaks every month in the United States.

Which types of food are most likely to give you food poisoning? The general assumption is that most cases of food poisoning come from meat and dairy, which is partially true. The Government Center for Disease Control, better known as the CDC, tries to determine where every major outbreak started. An analysis of over 4600 outbreaks of serious foodborne illnesses between 1998 and 2008 found that nearly half of foodborne illnesses were traced to produce. However, foodborne illnesses from produce usually did not result in death. The most severe symptoms usually came from outbreaks related to meat, especially poultry.

Where do food-borne illnesses in produce come from? The most obvious assumption is that foodborne illnesses coming from produce originate when farmers don’t clean their vegetables properly. However, most of the data suggests otherwise. A CDC study found that food-borne illnesses only originated on a farm 5% of the time or perhaps even less. More detailed statistics are available for norovirus outbreaks. These statistics show that 80% of outbreaks originate in restaurants and commercial food businesses. The vast majority of these outbreaks come from sick employees.

Are food-borne illnesses really increasing? There have been many articles both in the foodservice industry publications and mainstream media outlets that have claimed food-borne illnesses have been rising significantly in recent years. Data from the CDC, however, shows that the six most common foodborne illnesses have actually declined in frequency by 25% in the last 20 years. However, the severity of outbreaks does seem to be increasing. Not only is that troubling, but the number of outbreaks connected to produce have been increasing dramatically. Some experts think that the rise is due to better reporting mechanisms rather than an actual increase in the number of foodborne illnesses occurring.

Why are foodborne illnesses getting worse? Most experts do not feel that the problems in foodborne illnesses are related to the farmers. However, some government policies seem to indicate this. The more commonly accepted theories include the rise of organic produce, as it is grown with manure rather than chemical fertilizer, and the excessive use of antibiotics, which can cause foodborne illnesses to become resistant. What we need is proper food handling and safety education for both food service employees and customers.

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Source: TABC Blog by Learn 2 Serve

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