Are Foodborne Illnesses on the Rise, or What?

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Ahhh, another summer day, another outbreak of foodborne illness. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that salmonella linked to raw turkey meat caused 90 people in 26 states to fall ill so far. And more recently, the US Department of Agriculture and Inspection Service issued a public health alert on a number of other products including beef, pork, poultry, salad, and wrap products that might be contaminated with the cyclospora parasite. On the heels of this news, plus recalled Goldfish and Ritz Cracker varieties, contaminated veggie trays, E.coli-ridden romaine lettuce, and compromised breakfast cereal, you may be A. pining for a high-tech kitchen appliance that rids your food of bacteria, and B. wondering if noshing-related maladies are actually on the rise. According to CDC, the simple answer to B is, well, maybe.

Each year, the government organization investigates about 200 "illness clusters," and usually, only 15 of those are classified as outbreaks, according to CNN. But 2018 has already hit lucky number 13 on multistate outbreaks (yikes). "Outbreaks are the very, very, very end of a long process," says Matthew Wise, PhD, deputy branch chief for Outbreak Response at the CDC.

Statistically speaking, the CDC says foodborne illnesses affect one in six people, or 48 million Americans per year. Of those who fall ill each year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. To make matters worse, a preliminary data report from CDC FoodNet found that the number of diagnoses of Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, and Yersinia infections (a few of the 31 pathogens that can get people sick) specifically found by CIDTs—AKA culture-independent diagnostic tests, a tool that started to rise in popularity in the lab scene in 2012—increased by 96 percent in 2017 from the period between 2014 and 2016. At face value, that indicates that infection rates are skyrocketing, but the jump could be because the tools used to detect these types of pathogens have improved (hello, CIDTs), according to Catherine Donnelly, PhD, a professor of food science at the University of Vermont. And Mike Taylor, a former deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), points out that the faster the CDC identifies these outbreaks, the faster the agency can work toward containing them.

Even though it's still largely TBD on whether foodborne illness rates are truly on the upswing, Dr. Catherine Donnelly says the proportion of people who are at risk of contracting them is definitely increasing.

But even though it's still largely TBD on whether foodborne illness rates are truly on the upswing, Dr. Donnelly says the proportion of people who are at risk of contracting them is definitely increasing—namely, pregnant women, the elderly, young children, and anyone with a weaker immune system. Additionally, she says outbreaks are more often reported in the summer since food spoils faster in the heat. And, of course, there's the question of the actual food. Taylor explains that 95 percent of the seafood, 50 percent of fruit, and 25 percent of vegetables in the United States are imported, but not all of it is treated with one crucial "kill step" (i.e., the part of the process—like cooking or canning—that wipes out germs). Plus, the extra time on the road means more opportunities for contamination.

Taylor is hopeful that the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act—a law not yet fully implemented that states food producers should use scientifically backed practices to keep their products safe for consumption—will be a notable step in the right direction.

For now though, make sure you keep an eye out for recalls, and never fail to wash your produce and your hands (especially when handling raw animal products). Oh, and for now, maybe lay off the turkey?

Originally published July 20, 2018; updated August 1, 2018.

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