A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that foodborne illness might be on the rise. Approximately 48 million people get sick from one of 31 pathogens each year, sending about 128,000 people to the hospital and causing 3,000 deaths.
Catherine Donnelly, a professor of food science at the University of Vermont, believes that the increase might at least partly be due to improvements in the tools that detect food contamination as well as outbreak reporting, surveillance, and investigation.
“Surveillance has drastically improved, and state public health labs are linked to databases at CDC, allowing quick identification of patterns of illness and links to food products,” she said. “As a result, we see more reports of foodborne illness.”
“People are tending to eat more produce and eat it in different forms, and those are good things, because we want people to eat more fresh produce, but when that happens, you’re likely to increase the risk,” said FDA deputy commissioner Mike Taylor.
And this risk is likely due to the fact that fresh produce is “sold and prepared without any kill step” to remove illness-causing germs.
“Foods travel longer distances to get from farms to consumers, and pathogens can be introduced along the way,” Donnelly said. “There is wider geographic distribution of centrally produced foods, so when something goes wrong during production, the impacts are widespread.
“Many outbreaks linked to poultry, eggs and meat can be traced back to farms where intensive production practices can lead to [the] spread of highly virulent pathogens,” she said, and some reflect “poor food handling practices.”
Regardless, Taylor doesn’t think there’s cause for a huge alarm.
“People should know that there’s a lot of high tech, high-powered science going into figuring out how to do better at preventing foodborne illness,” Taylor said. “People should know that the system — government and industry — they’re not just sitting back.”