No Progress on Preventing Food-Borne Illness

Spinach. Cantaloupe. Peanut Butter. All delicious things to eat, and all in the news recently because they were associated with widespread cases of food poisoning. And it’s not just media coverage-according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses are increasing in the U.S.

The CDC reports says cases of food poisoning have increased 14% in the last five
years. It looked at trends since 1996, examining nine types of bacteria that transmit infection.

As reported by, the number of food-borne cases of illness were about the same as those between 2006-2008, which represents a lack of progress from earlier study periods.

Many cases of food-borne illness are never diagnosed. But in 2012, the CDC report tallied 19,531 food-borne infections and 4,563 hospitalizations.

According to, nearly 48 million Americans-or 1 in 6 people-get sick from contaminated food each year. About 3,000 will die, and the rest will suffer its miserable effects-diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.

The most common culprit in food poisoning is salmonella, even though the incidence of salmonella poisoning didn’t increase. Salmonella often is passed from animal droppings (commonly chickens) into water and produce.

The second-most common cause is campylobacter, which also is associated with poultry and with dairy products. The bacteria vibrio also is not your stomach’s friend-it’s found in undercooked shellfish and thrives in warm sea water. Most of the illness it causes is the result of eating raw oysters.

Other increasingly popular “delivery systems” for food infections are poultry and unpasteurized milk and cheese.

Meat-related illness declined. The CDC, says AboutLawsuits, attributed that to more scrutiny by regulatory agencies. Even though the incidence of contaminated meat declined, it still accounted for 29 in 100 deaths from all food-borne illnesses.

Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that ground beef and chicken are by far the riskiest meat/poultry products for food poisoning-specifically salmonella and E coli. The least risky? Chicken nuggets, ham and sausage. Read the report here.

The people most vulnerable to food infections are children younger than 5 and people older than 65. The percentage of victims who died was highest among the older group infected with vibrio (6 in 100) and salmonella (2 in 100). The percentage of patients who died from all pathogens studied was highest for listeria-11 in 100.

As noted by Bloomberg, the Obama administration has been slow to fully enact the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which we wrote about last year. One of two proposals made in January to kick start the FSMA would give companies one year to develop a formal illness prevention plan. The second would force produce farms with a “high risk” of contamination to formulate better hygiene, soil and temperature controls.

Neither proposal has taken effect, nor have any of the other major provisions of the FSMA.

Last week, as reported by FDA Law, a U.S. District Court in California granted summary judgment (when the court, or judge, disposes of a case before trial) to the Center for Food Safety and Center for Environmental Health in their lawsuit claiming that the FDA’s delay in issuing regulations to implement the FSMA was unlawful. The court said, according to Law Blog, “the failure to comply with those deadlines constitutes a ‘failure to act’ under the [Administrative Procedure Act].”

“[T]he purpose of ensuring food safety,” the court said, “will not be served by the issuance of regulations that are insufficiently considered, based on a timetable that is unconnected to the magnitude of the task set by Congress.” The court told the parties to confer and set a schedule for implantation. That’s supposed to be submitted by May 20. Stay tuned.

For tips on protecting yourself against food-borne illness, see our blog.

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