Why food borne illness on the rise

Food preparation
Food preparation

Strategies for Well-Being

Food safety is one of the biggest issues affecting the United States agricultural and food industries today. Foodborne illness hits one in six Americans every year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people get sick due to one or another of 31 infectious agents. About 128,000 people end up in the hospital while 3,000 die annually.

The U.S. food system is, in a word, global. The food we eat that comes from all over the world, contributes to the risk of foodborne illness. 95 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported; 50 percent of the fresh fruit and about 25 percent of the vegetables are imported. Foods travel longer distances to get from farms to consumers, and pathogens can be introduced along the way.

If recent headlines are any indication, foodborne illnesses like salmonella are becoming more and more commonplace. Large-scale recalls have plagued Goldfish crackers, salads and wraps and romaine lettuce from countless grocery stores this summer alone. Fortunately, the CDC just released a surveillance report analyzing the causes of foodborne disease outbreaks, giving consumers an idea of what foods they should be wary of.

According to the report, the humble chicken is most likely to cause outbreak-related illnesses. The surveillance report considered 5,760 outbreaks that caused 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations, and 145 deaths in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia during that time period.

For reference, the CDC defines an outbreak as two or more cases of similar illness that occurs after people eat a common food. In other words, getting sick from food that was left out on the counter for too long doesn’t count.

The report identified three common foods most often involved in outbreaks: fish (17 percent of all outbreaks), dairy (11 percent), and chicken (10 percent). But, chicken was most likely to cause an outbreak-related illness at 12 percent of all cases, followed by pork and seeded vegetables at 10 percent.

With this current wave of recalls, in the overwhelming majority of the situations, the culprit is E. coli, a nasty, nasty, bacteria that can lead to a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome – or HUS. Symptoms of an E. coli infection include bloody diarrhea and painful cramps. If it worsens it causes HUS, with symptoms of little urine output, lethargy, pallor – or paleness of the skin, easy bruising, and bleeding from the nose or mouth.

Make no mistake HUS and E. coli are both bad situations.

Both conditions can be life threatening. HUS can cause kidney failure, which may lead to the need for a kidney transplant. And both conditions can have lifelong health problems, including kidney disease, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The hospitalization rate and HUS case count in the recent deadly E. coli/HUS outbreak that is linked to romaine lettuce has been very high. Typically, in an E. coli outbreak, about 30 percent of patients are hospitalized, and about 5 to 10 percent develop HUS.

While some are simply the result of poor food handling practices, many of today’s outbreaks are linked to poultry, eggs and meat, and can be traced back to farms where intensive and rapid production practices often leads to the spread of highly infectious pathogens.

Even though we are constantly reminded on safe methods for cooking at home, the percentage of overall foodborne disease outbreaks linked to restaurant settings increased to 60 percent in 1998-2015, while outbreaks reported in the home dropped significantly to 8 percent.

So, in essence, it’s what we eat outside of the home that’s more of a concern for foodborne illness than what we’re doing with preparing food in the comfort of our homes and backyard cookouts.

One of the most significant wakeup calls for the entire food industry – sometimes called the “9/11” for the meat industry – was the 1993 E. coli outbreak from contaminated beef patties at Jack in the Box. Four children died while 178 others sustained permanent injury, including kidney and brain damage.

Let me end on a bright note: When there is a major outbreak of foodborne illness as a result of a food safety failure, the CDC gets involved to track cases. In more local cases, the local health department will investigate and do testing of the food involved for pathogens and try to match them with pathogens in sick patients to establish which foods sickened them. Many pathogens are even known for periods of a few days or even weeks, so it is not possible to establish which food caused the illness just by what was eaten most recently. Since the recalls were triggered by flags in the inspection process, rather than reports of consumer illness, it was a sign that the nation’s food inspection process was getting stronger.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!


The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her health care provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through http://www.glennellis.com.


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