What will cause the next food poisoning outbreak? E. coli in ground beef? Cyclospora in cilantro? Listeria in soft cheese?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher, is pressing for changes that would prevent—or at least cut short—the next outbreak.

A few of our recent efforts:

  • Cleaning up poultry. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Salmonella causes roughly 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States each year. Campylobacter, while less deadly, causes an estimated 1.5 million illnesses.

Nearly one in six cases of Salmonella and one in three Campylobacter infections show some resistance to antibiotics. A leading source of both microbes: poultry.

In January, CSPI—along with Consumer Reports, the Consumer Federation of America, Stop Foodborne Illness, and five victims of food poisoning—urged the Department of Agriculture to target the Salmonella strains that cause the most harm and to set strong standards to control Campylobacter.

We also asked the USDA to require poultry producers to use science-based tools to control risks on the farm, where crowded conditions make it easy for animals to spread germs that make people sick. In Europe, for example, vaccinating chickens and monitoring farms for dangerous bacteria have slashed foodborne illness rates from Salmonella.

  • Tracing the culprits. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration struggled to find the source of a nationwide E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce. Grocers and consumers had to toss romaine and packages of mixed greens because investigators couldn’t determine which lots were at risk. What a waste.

Last year, the FDA proposed a rule that would make tainted foods easier to trace by requiring companies to keep better records. We rallied support for the rule, which will transform efforts to solve and prevent outbreaks.

  • High-risk imports. A third of our vegetables, half of our fruits, and nearly all of our seafood is imported. Yet the FDA inspects only about 1 percent of imported food. And that puts us all at risk.

One unusual example: Poppy seeds come from the same plant as morphine. If improperly processed, the seeds can become contaminated with enough opiates to trigger a positive drug test. Brewing tea from large quantities of contaminated poppy seeds can cause an overdose or even death.

Yet contaminated poppy seeds slip into the country under the FDA’s radar. CSPI is urging Congress to boost the agency’s resources to help it identify and inspect poppy products along with other high-risk imports.

We should all be able to enjoy eating without having to worry about food poisoning. That’s what we’re fighting for.

Peter G. Lurie, MD, MPH
President, Center for Science in the Public Interest