Produce and Poultry Top Causes of "Illnesses Linked to Outbreaks"

Beef and Dairy Outbreaks Show Slight Rise in Latest Outbreak Alert! Report


WASHINGTON—While produce outbreaks grabbed the headlines in 2006 with E. coli 0157:H7 in spinach and Salmonella in tomatoes, in 2007, recalls due to E. coli0157:H7 contamination in beef have surged. Between June and November 2007, at least 30 million pounds of beef were recalled by 20 different companies.

CSPI’s updated Outbreak Alert! report, which includes 2005 data from the Centers for Disease Control, puts these events into context by showing food outbreak trends over 16 years. According to CSPI’s data, also now available in an online database, outbreaks declined overall in 2005, with some exceptions. Beef and dairy foods were the only two categories that saw an increase in outbreaks that year.

CDC is nearly two years behind in releasing outbreak data to the public, which makes CSPI’s data the best overall source for trend data linked to specific food products.

“Outbreak reporting is critical to understanding new risks in the food supply,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s food safety director. “If better data came in from the states and information was reported by CDC promptly, perhaps consumers could avoid the kind of produce and beef outbreaks we’ve seen lately.”

CSPI’s updated Outbreak Alert! report and online database now includes an additional 415 outbreaks and 8,970 illnesses reported in 2005. Outbreak data from the CDC is carefully reviewed by CSPI, and included in the database if it reflects a known pathogen and an identifiable food vehicle. Only 58 percent of outbreaks reported to CDC in 2005 were investigated fully enough to make it into CSPI’s database.

CSPI research shows that the CDC’s reporting system for food outbreaks has gotten better in recent years, but is entirely dependent on thorough investigations at the state level.

“State and local health departments must be adequately equipped to investigate outbreaks,” said Farida Bhuiya, principal researcher on Outbreak Alert! “CDC should focus efforts to improve outbreak surveillance at the state level, because it would allow the states and CDC to respond more quickly and perhaps reduce the size and public health impact of foodborne illness outbreaks.”

In this year’s Outbreak Alert!, CSPI highlights several hot topics in food safety:

• Disparities in funding. Outbreaks from FDA-regulated foods account for two-thirds of outbreaks in CSPI’s database from 1990-2005, but FDA’s food safety expenditures are only about a third of the federal food safety budget.

• Virus-caused outbreaks. Foodborne illnesses caused by viruses have quadrupled in recent years. They accounted for just seven percent of outbreaks between 1990 and 1997, but 30 percent of outbreaks between 1998-2005. Eighty-eight percent of virus outbreaks are caused by the Norovirus, which can cause vomiting and acute diarrhea.

• Produce-related outbreaks. CSPI identified the most common food/pathogen combinations in outbreaks linked to fruits and vegetables. Norovirus and Salmonella were the two most prevalent pathogens, with Norovirus most often affecting salad greens and fruits, and Salmonella showing up on sprouts, salad greens, melons and potatoes.

• Unpasteurized dairy. “Raw” dairy products, even though they represent a tiny fraction of the market, were associated with 30 percent of dairy-related outbreaks, including 70 percent of milk outbreaks.

CSPI is leading an effort to urge Congress to modernize food safety laws, including consideration of legislation to establish a unified, independent food-safety agency with increased authority to recall foods and penalize violating companies. CSPI is partnering with the Grocery Manufacturers of America and other consumer and industry groups in the Alliance for a Stronger FDA (formerly the Coalition for a Stronger FDA), which is lobbying for increased funding for the agency.

“U.S. food safety laws are antiquated and were never designed to deal with modern issues such as escalating imports, bioterrorism, or tainted produce,” DeWaal said. “The recent outbreaks serve as a reminder that more funding and a modern law are needed to protect the food supply.”

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