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Why now? Was CDC’s Timing on Estimates Political?

Wednesday’s release of the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates on foodborne illness in the U.S., which are significantly lower than the oft-cited decade-old estimates, left many in the food policy community wondering about the timing of the report.

Just two weeks ago, lawmakers were citing the now-obsolete 1999 estimates, as the House and Senate debated the pending food safety bill, which would be the most sweeping update to food safety laws in over seven decades. The 1999 estimates put the annual foodborne illness burden at 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths. The new, more precise estimates, made with more robust data and advanced methodology, are 37 percent lower: 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.

It was well-known within the food safety community that CDC was working on new estimates, but the timing of the report, which was published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, raised eyebrows. The food safety bill, now attached to budget bills in the House and Senate, was on track to become law by the end of the year as of Wednesday.

Was the timing political?

Dr. Richard Raymond, former under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, thinks it’s entirely feasible that the release of the new numbers was delayed so the lower estimates would not sway the outcome of the food safety bill. 

“I firmly believe this is politics,” Raymond told Food Safety News Wednesday. “Anyone who works in the federal government has to deal with politics, like it or not.  I’m sure people at CDC have been getting antsy to release these numbers, they’re better numbers. They’ve sat on this for a long time.”

Food policy author and New York University professor Marion Nestle raised the question on her blog Food Politics Thursday. “Why is the CDC doing this now?  Maybe this is just a matter of journal publication dates but it would be painfully ironic if CDC’s “better” numbers undercut enactment of the food safety bill.”

CDC officials maintain that they had no control over the timing of the release–a lengthy peer review process and the journal’s publication date set the schedule.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said Dr. Chris Braden in interview with Food Safety News. Braden said CDC submitted the report to the journal over a year ago. “We’ve had no control over the timing. So, go figure.”

As Food Safety News reported yesterday, Raymond and many others in the public health community praised the new, more accurate estimates.  Raymond said it was “high time” the CDC released better figures. He called the report a “tremendous improvement.”

Consumer advocates and public health experts emphasized that the new, lower estimates indicate that the public health burden of foodborne illness is still far too high.

“Though we have seen clear progress in the past ten years, these numbers illustrate a very real impact of foodborne illnesses in the United States,” said Dr. Braden on a call with reporters Wednesday. “It affects tens of millions of Americans each year … that translates into one in six Americans ill from foodborne illnesses each year. It remains a substantial public health problem. A lot more work still needs to be done, for our new estimates will serve as a foundation for the future to help in the development in food safety policies.”

Braden said that CDC hopes to release more data on foodborne illness broken down by food commodities in 2011.

© Food Safety News
  • I hope that Food Safety News will ask Dr. Braden to show us how “Truth is stranger than fiction. We’ve had no control over the timing. So, go figure.”
    It should be fairly easy for EID to publish copies of correspondence that show when it received and acted on the report and how it regularly takes reports “over a year” to go through the EID process.
    Of course, that will only clear the EID.
    It doesn’t clear the CDC for having waited so long to address the criticism of Mead. Dr. Morris’ editorial, “How Safe Is Our Food?” documented peer reviewed, published critiques in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
    I look forward to seeing evidence instead of simply verbal claims.

  • Michael Bulger

    That would be nice. Maybe we should fund a hearing. While we’re on the subject, let’s decrease the amount of time between reports. I think it would be worth the cost to pay for more frequent estimates. That way we can more accurately track the problem. Seems to be Harry’s idea, but I’d support an increase in the CDC’s budget right along with him.

  • I hope that Food Safety News will ask Dr. Braden to show us how “Truth is stranger than fiction. We’ve had no control over the timing. So, go figure.”
    It should be fairly easy for EID to publish copies of correspondence that show when it received and acted on the report and how it regularly takes reports “over a year” to go through the EID process.
    Of course, that will only clear the EID.
    It doesn’t clear the CDC for having waited so long to address the criticism of Mead. Dr. Morris’ editorial, “How Safe Is Our Food?” documented peer reviewed, published critiques in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
    I look forward to seeing evidence instead of simply verbal claims.

  • I love “The new, more precise estimates, made with more robust data and advanced methodology”statement. That is interupted as we have no idea what it was in 1999 and we still don’t know today — furthermore we don’t want to know.
    To understand that, EPA found antibiotic bacteria were being created in wastewater and drinking water treatment plants in the early 80s. MRSA hospitalizations increased from 1,900 in 1993 to 368,0000 in 2005 with 20,000 deaths. Antibiotic resistance in hospitals is responsible for 100,000 deaths, yet, neither CDC or EPA has anyone looking at the antibiotic resistant bacteria being spread in our water, or on contaminated sludge and reclaimed water spread on food crops, our parks, school grounds, as well as home lawns and gardens.

  • njohnson

    The CDC, it turns out, had come under industry pressure in recent months to finally issue its updated data. On September 10, 2010, Dr. Betsy Booren, Director of Scientific Affairs at the American Meat Institute Foundation, wrote a letter to Dr. Braden at the CDC, complaining that AMI and the Foundation “are eagerly awaiting the update to the Mead et al report, which has been in preparation since before 2007 and, inexplicably, has not yet been released.” See http://www.meatami.com/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/62612
    To create additional pressure on the CDC, the AMI Foundation, which includes representatives on its board of directors from JBS Swift, Cargill, Hormel Foods, Fresh Mark, Sara Lee, Tyson, Kraft/Oscar Myer and Smithfield among others, also distributed a press release about their request to Dr. Baden. The Foundation argued that “This objective data allows food safety stakeholders to allocate food safety resources and scientifically justify the decisions made in their food safety system. By having timely, credible food attribution data, the food industry can accurately identify and improve any food safety gaps that may exist. It also may help to identify emerging foodborne risks, especially when such risks have not been previously associated with specific foods. This rapid adjustment to improve safety can only occur if accurate data is made available as soon as possible to all food safety stakeholders.” Certainly, the AMI Foundation makes a strong case for the CDC to fulfill its responsibilities in a more timely fashion.
    And presto! Now we learn that a publication date has finally been scheduled for January 2011, a pretty prompt response to the AMI Foundation’s pressure yet too late to jeopardize the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was expected to have been a done deal by now.
    Can you imagine the reaction had the new, significantly lower estimates come out earlier? What food safety crisis!

  • Nicole Johnson

    The CDC, it turns out, had come under industry pressure in recent months to finally issue its updated data. On September 10, 2010, Dr. Betsy Booren, Director of Scientific Affairs at the American Meat Institute Foundation, wrote a letter to Dr. Braden at the CDC, complaining that AMI and the Foundation “are eagerly awaiting the update to the Mead et al report, which has been in preparation since before 2007 and, inexplicably, has not yet been released.” See http://www.meatami.com/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/62612
    To create additional pressure on the CDC, the AMI Foundation, which includes representatives on its board of directors from JBS Swift, Cargill, Hormel Foods, Fresh Mark, Sara Lee, Tyson, Kraft/Oscar Myer and Smithfield among others, also distributed a press release about their request to Dr. Baden. The Foundation argued that “This objective data allows food safety stakeholders to allocate food safety resources and scientifically justify the decisions made in their food safety system. By having timely, credible food attribution data, the food industry can accurately identify and improve any food safety gaps that may exist. It also may help to identify emerging foodborne risks, especially when such risks have not been previously associated with specific foods. This rapid adjustment to improve safety can only occur if accurate data is made available as soon as possible to all food safety stakeholders.” Certainly, the AMI Foundation makes a strong case for the CDC to fulfill its responsibilities in a more timely fashion.
    And presto! Now we learn that a publication date has finally been scheduled for January 2011, a pretty prompt response to the AMI Foundation’s pressure yet too late to jeopardize the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was expected to have been a done deal by now.
    Can you imagine the reaction had the new, significantly lower estimates come out earlier? What food safety crisis!