WASHINGTON - Contaminated seafood is the leading known cause of foodborne illness outbreaks, according to a new report published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The next biggest causes are eggs, fruits and vegetables, beef and poultry. Those findings are in CSPI’s Outbreak Alert! report, which was released this week at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.

     Based on approximately 1,600 food-poisoning outbreaks affecting more than 70,000 individuals between 1990 and 2001, CSPI found:

  • Seafood caused 340 outbreaks with 5,133 cases of foodborne illness.
  • Eggs and egg dishes caused 271 outbreaks with 10,827 cases.
  • Fruits and vegetables caused 148 outbreaks with 9,413 cases of food poisoning.
  • Beef, the meat product most likely to be linked to an outbreak, caused 134 outbreaks with 6,089 cases of foodborne illness.
  • Contaminated poultry caused 79 outbreaks with 4,279 cases.

     “Seafood and other foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) caused four times more outbreaks than meat and poultry products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s director of food safety. “Despite that, the FDA has only one-tenth as many food-safety inspectors, and about one-third of the inspection budget of the USDA. That represents a huge gap in consumers’ protection against unsafe food.”

     FDA currently has only 150 inspectors to check on 3.7 million shipments of imported food and inspects domestic food plants only once every five years. FDA recently informed Congress that it needs significant new resources to protect the food supply, including $800 million to enhance domestic inspections and $540 million to inspect 20 percent of the shipments of imported food. Because of the threat of bioterrorism, the Bush Administration last week requested emergency funding from Congress, including $61 million to increase imported food inspections and to modernize the import data system.

     “The Bush Administration has acknowledged serious gaps in FDA’s food-safety program that need to be repaired.” said DeWaal. “In addition to increasing FDA’s funding, the Bush Administration and Congress should combine federal food safety programs into a single food safety agency with modern tools to address new hazards, like bioterrorism and mad cow disease.”

     Outbreak Alert!, published annually by CSPI since 1999, provides the most comprehensive listing of foodborne illness outbreaks linked to the food source and the regulating agency. The report is compiled from authoritative sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local health departments, and medical and scientific journals. Outbreaks of unknown origin, i.e. where no food or pathogen could be identified, are not included in Outbreak Alert!