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For Immediate
January 22, 1999


For more information:

Major Gaps Exist In Food-Safety Surveillance, CSPI Charges
Public “Kept In The Dark” On Food-Poisoning Trends

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Outbreak Report

In “Outbreak Alert!” — a 23-page report issued today — the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to publish a comprehensive and timely listing of foodborne-illness outbreaks. Such a listing could help public health officials contain current outbreaks and prevent future ones.

“With headline after headline alerting consumers to food-poisoning outbreaks, the public might be surprised to learn that no government agency keeps a complete list of those outbreaks. As the nation’s disease monitor, CDC should be tracking outbreak trends and quickly releasing information to health officials and the public,” said CSPI food-safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal.

“An up-to-date, readily available inventory of outbreaks would help health officials nip outbreaks in the bud and prevent new ones. As it is, CDC estimates that foodborne pathogens cause as many as 9,000 deaths and 33 million illnesses annually,” added DeWaal.

While CDC and the states investigate outbreaks, no federal agency maintains and analyzes a comprehensive list of all such outbreaks. To help fill that gap, CSPI used numerous documented sources such as CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, medical journal articles, and government publications to compile a list of 225 foodborne-illness outbreaks that occurred between 1990 and 1998. Those 225 outbreak reports represent only a fraction of outbreaks that occurred during this period.

The findings in “Outbreak Alert!” were released today at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Anaheim, California. Among them:

  • Meat and poultry, with 65 reports, were the most frequent causes of outbreaks. Ground beef was the food most likely to be implicated, causing 37 of the 65 outbreaks.
  • Fruits, vegetables, and salads were the second-most-likely food group to be linked to an outbreak, with a total of 48 reports. Seafood (both finfish and shellfish) was responsible for 32 outbreaks.
  • An assortment of multi-ingredient foods was responsible for 63 outbreaks. The category includes desserts, sauces, egg dishes, pasta dishes, ethnic foods, and stuffing. In three-quarters of those cases, the cause of illness was Salmonella enteritidis, a bacterium that commonly contaminates eggs.
  • Foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration caused over twice as many outbreaks as foods regulated by the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
“Public-health officials need to know — and consumers deserve to know — which foods are causing food-poisoning outbreaks,” said DeWaal. “CDC is keeping the public in the dark about outbreak trends.”

CSPI recommended that CDC serve as the national clearinghouse by maintaining a comprehensive inventory of outbreak investigations. CSPI also called on the states to report all foodborne-illness outbreaks to CDC. In addition, CSPI urged Congress to provide CDC and the states with the resources they need to reduce food-poisoning outbreaks to an absolute minimum.

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