From 2001 to 2010, reported outbreaks of foodborne illness decreased by roughly 40%, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Better food-safety practices, implemented by the meat, poultry and seafood industries, possibly contributed to the decline.
But CSPI warns that public health agencies often fail to fully investigate outbreaks, meaning they don't identify the food and pathogen such as E. coli that caused the illnesses. During the 10-year period studied, the percentage of fully investigated outbreaks fell from 46% to 33%, according to the group. What's more, foodborne illness is notoriously underreported since most people who fall ill don't seek medical treatment.
"Despite progress made by the industry and by food safety regulators, contaminated food is still causing too many illnesses, visits to the emergency room, and deaths," CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal said in a statement March 25. "Yet state and local health departments and federal food safety programs always seem to be on the chopping block. Those financial pressures not only threaten the progress we've made on food safety, but threaten our very understanding of which foods and which pathogens are making people sick."
CSPI learned U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-regulated foods were to blame for more than twice as many outbreaks as the meat and poultry foods under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The number of outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated food could fall in the coming years, thanks to a landmark food-safety law the agency has been implementing. The 2-year-old Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is intended to prevent foodborne illness rather than simply react to a crisis.
Still, the global food-supply chain presents challenges for regulators. In a report last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found foodborne disease outbreaks caused by imported food rose in 2009 and 2010, with fish being the most common reason for the illnesses. Roughly 50% of fresh fruits, 20% of fresh vegetables and 80% of seafood are imported, according to FDA.
FDA officials are working with foreign governments to make food safer around the world. In February, as required by law, the agency released "FDA's International Food Safety Capacity-Building Plan."
"Capacity building is one tool in a larger toolbox FSMA has provided for FDA to hold imported foods to the same standards as domestic foods," Michael Taylor, FDA's Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, wrote.