Ten top facts about the rise of foodborne illness
1. With all the media reports of foodborne illnesses this summer it seems that foodborne illness is on the rise. Would you say this is true?
Yes, foodborne illness is on the rise with regard to pathogens known as Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, Yersinia and E. coli. According to a recent CNN article, foodborne illness hits one in six Americans every year. It is estimated that 48 million people get sick due to one or another of 31 pathogens. About 128,000 people end up in hospitals and 3,000 die annually.
This summer there were many highly-publicized outbreaks including these three that were quite extensive:
- A romaine lettuce incident that affected 210 victims, with 96 hospitalizations in 36 states.
- Another big one involved Hy-Vee pasta salad. 101 victims, 25 hospitalizations in 10 states.
- A third outbreak occurred in Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal. 130 victims with 34 hospitalizations in 36 states.
2. Does this rise in foodborne illness look like it is a long-term trend?
One of the things that points to a long-term trend towards more foodborne illness is that the pathogens are actually adapting and changing as their environment changes. This is why we’re seeing uncommon occurrences like Salmonella outbreaks in dry cereal. Normally we wouldn’t expect this to occur in cereal because it is a dry environment. We have also seen Salmonella in peppers and normally it would not survive in an acidic environment.
3. Why does it seem that we hear so much more about these foodborne illness events in the summer months?
In the summer people are eating more raw fruits and vegetables which contribute more to foodborne illness.
Eating more raw foods is a trend right now and it represents a higher risk due to the fact that fresh fruits and vegetables are sold without any kill step such as canning which can destroy germs. This trend can lead to more foodborne illness. There is also a movement of people who drink raw milk; milk that is unpasteurized. There have been a number of raw milk outbreaks which wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago.
4. Are the detection methods for food sources improving?
We are getting much better at detecting foodborne illness outbreaks because testing methods are much better. Twenty years ago we had genetic testing but it was rudimentary; it was only able to test for a few points of a genome in a particular pathogen. Now that we have whole-genome sequencing, we can basically test every data point along the genome of the entire pathogen. This makes it much easier to definitively identify a common outbreak source.
For example, because the genetic testing can match the food source with the victim, health officials can isolate Salmonella from tomatoes. Then officials can look at the whole genome of the Salmonella bacteria from the person infected and compare it to the whole genome of the Salmonella bacteria which was living on the tomato. If it’s an identical match, and if we know the person consumed the product, we know that the person’s Salmonella did indeed come from those tomatoes because the genetic testing has tied it up so well.
5. Are the food source tracking methods for foodborne illness improving?
There have been great advances in the ways to track products from farm to fork. And because the tracking in the food chain of distribution has improved, health officials can more easily go upstream to detect the source. This means that outbreaks can ultimately be stopped much more quickly. If we know the outbreak is from tomatoes and we can track them to a particular store, then it’s easier to track that store as well as the wholesaler and grower.
6. Are these incidents being more widely publicized now through the many online news outlets, social media, etc.?
I believe so. There are more websites than ever that are totally devoted to foodborne illness topics. These are over and above the websites from the FDA and USDA. There are lots of bloggers out there that focus on the topic. Also news sites like CNN are giving this more focus.
7. What does the Centers for Disease Control include in an outbreak communication?
In each outbreak communication, the CDC informs the public about where sickness is occurring, the severity of illness, symptoms and product recall information, if any. It helps when people who believe that their own illness may be part of an outbreak talk to their doctors.
8. Can you tell us about a recent foodborne illness case that you’ve been involved in?
I recently settled two cases involving two young girls, ages 7 and 8. The girls ate the dessert pizza at a Pizza Ranch restaurant and the raw product in the dough was contaminated with E. coli. This outbreak of E. coli in the dough was spread through 6 or 7 states. Baking the dough should have been a sufficient kill step, but something went wrong in the cooking process. Either the dough wasn’t cooked long enough or there was cross-contamination with another raw pizza that may have left E. coli on the prep surface.
9. Is it getting easier for people with a foodborne illness to find an attorney?
With the internet it is easy to find an attorney that specializes in foodborne illness. People also see more news stories about settlements involving foodborne illness. The media stories involving these illnesses have also made it easier for people to find news reports of settlements for foodborne illness cases.
10. What agencies are in charge of foodborne illness issues?
Preventing foodborne illness in the United States is the job of two agencies. The first is the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees the meat, poultry and processed egg supply. The second is the US Food and Drug Administration which is responsible for domestic and imported foods, including shell eggs.