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Snapshot by U.S. PIRG Sees Foodborne Illness as Worsening Problem

In a little less than two years, recalled foods have been linked to 1,753 illnesses, 464 hospitalizations and at least 37 deaths and have cost the public $227 million in health costs, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

In a report that U.S. PIRG calls a ‘snapshot look” at foodborne illness in the U.S. from January 2011 to September 2012, the group looks at outbreaks that involved cantaloupe, ground turkey, papaya, mangoes, raw tuna and peanut butter, all of which were recalled after being linked to ongoing outbreaks. The report concludes that things are not getting better in the U.S. when it comes to foodborne illnesses. In fact, they are getting worse.

“Failures in the rules and processes that protect our food supply have led to numerous high-volume recalls over the past two years that left many Americans sickened and at least 37 dead,” says U.S. PIRG. “And the economic costs of illnesses caused by food products recalled over the past 21 months come to over $227 million.”

The report says Americans have become accustomed to food recalls. It paints a picture of a country where foodborne illness has become routine, with 48 million illnesses a year and little progress being made in reducing some pathogens, with Salmonella at unchecked levels for five years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that 1 in 6 Americans become ill for 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year, the report points out.

“As the number of hospitalizations and deaths reported by CDC show, foodborne illnesses can be much more severe that a simple upset stomach, as several foodborne illnesses can cause serious health problems and death,” U.S. PIRG added.

“Infection with a certain strand of E. coli bacteria can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, which causes kidney dysfunction and sometimes kidney failure,” the report continues. “Certain types of Shigella, Salmonella, and Campylobacter bacteria can trigger the onset of reactive or chronic arthritis.”

The report also noted that Listeria monocytogenes puts babies in utero at risk of developmental delays, paralysis or blindness.

In addition, U.S PIRG said the aggregated cost of foodborne illness has been estimated at $77.7 billion a year.

It examined all outbreaks and illnesses linked to food recalls during the 21-month period, finding 718 illnesses directly related to a recall in 2011 and 1,035 in 2012.

U.S. PIRG also used a cost of illness model developed by Professor Robert L Scharff to allocate costs by state. “The model accounts for health-related costs associated with foodborne illness such as hospital costs, lab work and inpatient and outpatient care and also (the model) incorporates a value for pain and suffering and lost productivity,” reads the report.

“Our food safety practices are falling short, “ says U.S. PIRG. It says that except for E. coli, the country is failing to meet national objectives set by the Healthy People 2010 goals. “The incidence of Salmonella was three times the 2010 national health objective target, which is especially alarming as Salmonella causes the majority of hospitalizations and deaths from foodborne disease,” it says.

U.S. PIRG says food imports are contributing to the high rate of foodborne illnesses in the country. It pointed to the 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) discovering that the U.S. Food and Drug Administation (FDA) inspected only 153 of 189,000 registered foreign food facilities.

“More must be done to protect Americans from the hazards of unsafe food,” says U.S. PIRG. It calls enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) a step forward, but notes the problems that have occurred in funding and rulemaking.

The new law reforms FDA operations, while leaving about 15 other federal agencies involved in food safety unchanged, says the report. For example, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service continues without the mandatory recall authority that the FSMA gives to FDA.

U.S. PIRG does hail the additional powers given to FDA by the act, including more control over imports. It says more must be done to bring down the number of recalls, including focusing on funding and timely implementation of FSMA.

In the document, the group also called for more frequent unaccounted inspections of high-risk foods, more investigations into the causes of foodborne illnesses and more coordination among federal agencies.

© Food Safety News
  • doc raymond

    I tire of advocacy groups, and politicians with a mission, using the oft-quoted 48 million illnesses figure. Why can’t they use actual laboratory confirmed illnesses when they talk trends. I readily admit many illnesses are undiagnoses, but the 48 million included 38 million foodborne illnesses from “unknown” pathogens according to the CDC. How do regulators fight against the unknown?
    E coli O157 infections are down 250% since 1996 according to the CDC.
    Illnesses linked to outbreaks and recalls are up because we are doing a better job of linking what used to be isolated illnesses into clusters, which helps investigators find the source which triggers media coverage and recalls. 
    And i especially tire from these groups always linking imports into the equation, meaning they simply want more money for FDA to inspect imports. How are imports to blame for 99% of the recalls we read about, such as the Salinas Valley spinach outbreak, Jensen Farms cantaloupe, Peanut Corp of America, Wright Egg Farms, etc..