Much attention is rightly paid to assuring that children are provided with sufficient food and adequate nutrition. The safety of that food should be just as important because children are one of the groups most at risk for getting sick from foodborne illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that children under 15 years of age account for approximately half of all foodborne illness in the country. Children under 5 years of age are the most vulnerable, experiencing the highest rates of infection for Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157:H7 and other shiga-toxin producing E. coli bacteria.
With more than two-fifths of children in the United States living in low-income families, are these children at greater risk of foodborne illness than children from higher-income families?
Common sense would tell us that social and environmental factors, such as poverty, likely play a role in the rate of illness. Low-income children tend to have poorer access to medical care, lower nutritional status, and greater exposure to environmental threats which can impact their ability to fight foodborne infections.
Some research has found barriers to assuring safe food in low-income communities. Several recent studies have found higher levels of contamination in fresh produce, dairy and eggs available to lower-income and minority populations in retail stores. Other studies have identified numerous barriers to adequate food safety compliance in smaller corner grocery stores in urban areas. This poses challenges to efforts that are already underway to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income communities, for example. Low-income children could be placed at greater risk for foodborne illness if these challenges are ignored when developing such programs.
The trouble is that we don’t have good data to know for sure whether low-income children face a greater burden of foodborne disease than other children. Current data from the CDC on the rates of foodborne illness make no distinction between income levels, so it is difficult to tell if there are real differences between populations.
National data collection efforts on foodborne illness could be expanded to include income, or proxies for income, such as information on the census tracts in which children live. The CDC could work with reporting institutions—such as hospitals and medical providers, state and local agencies, and other entities—to explore the feasibility of collecting this income-related information.
Such data could better inform researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders about the particular risks facing low-income populations, and children in particular. The data could also point to new ways to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and would likely enhance the effectiveness of prevention efforts in low-income communities.