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New CDC data show little progress in reducing foodborne illness

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its annual report on the incidence of foodborne illness in the United States. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much good news in the CDC’s report. In fact, the report shows that we’ve made very little progress in reducing foodborne illness in recent years.

Compared to a baseline period of 2010-2012, the data from 2013 show no significant change in illnesses from most pathogens, including E. coli O157:H7 and other shiga-toxin producing strains of E. coli (non-O157 STECs), Listeria and Campylobacter. The data does show a small but important decrease in Salmonella illnesses when compared to 2010-2012, likely attributed to efforts to reduce contamination of shell eggs, but it’s too early to know if this is the start of a downward trend or just a variation in the data.

Some of the other key findings from CDC’s data include:

  • Salmonella and Campylobacter continue to cause the most foodborne illness in the United States.
  • Progress in reducing illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 has stalled.
  • The incidence of Vibrio illnesses—resulting from exposure to seawater or consumption of raw or undercooked seafood—was at the highest level since CDC started tracking the disease.

CDC’s data continue to show that Salmonella (38% of foodborne illnesses) and Campylobacter (35% of illnesses) remain the leading causes of infection in the United States, particularly among older adults and children under five years of age. Salmonella and Campylobacter illnesses are frequently associated with raw or undercooked poultry and much of the poultry that consumers purchase in the supermarket that is sold as parts.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees meat and poultry safety, is developing the first ever Salmonella performance standards for poultry parts and comminuted poultry products, which will hopefully help decrease rates of contamination on those products. This follows several high profile outbreaks linked to ground poultry and a USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) baseline study that found high percent positive rates on poultry parts. The agency should finalize the standards soon and develop performance standards for Campylobacter, as well.

Progress on reducing illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 looks to have stalled and in fact, may be trending back upwards after several years of success. Also troubling is that illnesses from non-O157:H7 STECs continue to trend upwards. In addition, for the third year in a row, the incidence of illnesses from non-O157 STECs is higher than illnesses from E. coli O157:H7.

The incidence of Vibrio illnesses was the highest observed since CDC started tracking illnesses in the late 1990s. CDC notes that about 50% of Vibrio illnesses are transmitted via food, most commonly oysters. Postharvest treatment of oysters or not harvesting oysters from particular waters during warmer months could reduce illnesses from this pathogen.

The data from CDC also points to the importance of implementing and enforcing systems of prevention like those required under the Food Safety Modernization Act. FDA is currently working on a number of rules required under the law that would set new preventive requirements for food processing facilities, food producers and food importers. A court order requires the new rules to be in place by 2016, but faster implementation would benefit consumers in helping drive down foodborne illness rates.

Chris Waldrop Chris Waldrop (
Director, Food Policy Institute, Consumer Federation of America

View more posts by Chris Waldrop

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.