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Without Fanfare, CDC Reports Sharp Decline in Foodborne Illnesses

Opinion

Wouldn’t you think that a one-third decline in reported foodborne illnesses would be a cause of celebration at the agency responsible for educating us about unsafe food? Well, if not a celebration, at least a slight smile, a teeny bit of self congratulation, maybe a soft exhale?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control just reported such an occurrence, but buried the encouraging trend in a brief footnote that seems to have escaped media and professional notice.

Here is what happened. Last Friday, the CDC reported its “Surveillance for Foodborne Disease Outbreaks–United States 2009-2010.” This report, collecting “data on foodborne disease outbreaks submitted by all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico through CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System,” is something the CDC has in the past issued on an annual basis, typically three years behind real time. So, the most recent previous report, issued in September 2011, was for the year 2008.

If you read through the first-paragraph summary of the results, you might easily conclude, as I did, that the report covered just 2009, since the results aren’t all that different from 2008. The numbers in the latest report: 29,444 illnesses, 1,184 hospitalizations, and 23 deaths.

In the most recent previous report, the CDC showed 23,152 illnesses, 1,276 hospitalizations, and 22 deaths.

It’s when you stop yourself and realize, as I did a couple days later, that the report issued last Friday actually, for the first time ever, covers two years, that you go back and re-read the report.

You have to examine the report very closely, and deeply — ten paragraphs into it, in an Editorial Note, to be exact — to find out exactly what occurred in the reporting. The CDC transitioned to a “new reporting form and online data interface,” the note states, and when the smoke cleared, “the number of foodborne disease outbreaks reported in 2009 and 2010 declined 32% compared with the mean of the preceding 5 years.”

A new form and interface shouldn’t change the data, though, should it? No, suggests the CDC. But it indicates it isn’t sure why such a sharp decline occurred.

Last Friday’s report speculates: “The decline in foodborne disease outbreak reporting was largely observed among norovirus outbreaks. Norovirus can be transmitted through a variety of routes, including direct contact between persons, through contact with contaminated surfaces, and ingestion of contaminated food or water. Distinguishing among these modes of transmission in an outbreak can be challenging; some outbreaks involve multiple transmission routes. The advent of NORS [the new National Outbreak Reporting System], which for the first time enables electronic reporting of nonfoodborne norovirus outbreaks, might have led to more appropriate classification of outbreaks previously reported as foodborne, resulting in fewer reports of foodborne norovirus outbreaks. Other possible explanations for the fewer foodborne disease outbreaks in 2009 and 2010 include resource limitations and competing priorities (e.g., the influenza A [H1N1] virus pandemic in 2009) for state epidemiologic and laboratory resources.”

Bottom line, though, reported foodborne illnesses, outbreaks, and hospitalizations are down sharply. That seems like a cause for some congratulations in most areas of public safety, be it crime, accidents…or disease. Maybe because food safety is supposed to be experiencing a crisis, with foodborne illnesses out of control, congratulation isn’t politically correct.

© Food Safety News
  • http://twitter.com/RustyBrown47 Russell La Claire

    Or, perhaps there are a lot of things involved that don’t readily meet the eye. Not sure how much contact you have with CDC, but they are generally evidence based. However, the article works until the last sentence. A gratuitous throw away left in to try to be clever. It isn’t.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    I guess most of the people have adhered to all those warnings about the dangers of raw milk. 

  • Emily73

     The illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths reported are from investigated outbreaks, where the outbreak strain of the bacteria is identified and confirmed in patients. There are far, far more illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths that occur every day in this country that are NOT officially reported. In fact, the number of Salmonella cases IN a confirmed outbreak are at least 30 times more prevalent than reported. That doesn’t mean fewer people are dying from foodborne illnesses.

  • VTChick

    Perhaps an operative word is “reported.” Fewer people can afford a visit to the doctor? Perhaps they question their own statistics for reasons not shared here.

  • http://twitter.com/SGrooters Susan VaughnGrooters

    Trend analysis for incident rates of foodborne illness cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are derived from active surveillance systems. FoodNet sites collect and aggregate this information.

  • Scott Hurd

    Great point, David.  Seems our government prefers to scare us