On Wednesday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest(CSPI) called on the states to improve outbreak reporting. “Better reporting of foodborne illness outbreaks could speed recalls and save lives,” CSPI wrote.

According to a recent publication by the PEW Trusts Produce Safety Project, the national cost of foodborne illness has been estimated at $152 billion annually.  According to CSPI, in 2006, more than 200 people fell ill and 5 people died after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

scientist-microscope-featured.jpgAfter the spinach outbreak, CSPI conducted a study on state outbreak-reporting data, which showed that reporting varied widely between the states.  Nine states reported ten to fifteen outbreaks per million people, while many others only reported one outbreak.

“State and local health departments are our first line of defense when it comes to identifying the food that causes an outbreak,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “But some states may not have enough investigators or the money to train and equip their staff, which can lead to lower-quality investigations and lower rates of reporting.”

The United States Congress is currently taking steps to improve state reporting.  The House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749) in July of 2009.

H.R. 2749 increased mandated food inspections at manufacturing facilities every six to twelve months for high risk facilities; every eighteen months to three years for low-risk facilities; and every five years for warehouses.  The bill also requires companies to identify hazards particular to the foods they produce, and to implement written food safety plans to control these hazards.  Furthermore, the bill gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated foods and provides harsher penalties for negligent processors.

The bill is still pending in the Senate, but with passage would require the FDA to improve coordination between federal, state, and local surveillance systems; develop a national network of laboratories; and improve epidemiological tools available to states. Furthermore, the bill would integrate foodborne illness surveillance with other bio-surveillance capabilities.

“State outbreak reporting is a vital piece of our national food safety system, and the information gathered in the course of outbreak investigations can reduce the impact of outbreaks and prevent future ones.  Action on the Senate bill would help strengthen both federal and state food safety programs,” DeWall said.

According to recent research done by Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.), a number of factors may also explain the discrepancies between state investigations.

“States’ systematic differences in response to foodborne illness case reporting may also explain variations in rates.  Time differences in surveying cases of foodborne illness and lack of integrated data collection may also affect how well states accurately capture data,” said Susan Vaughn Grotters, S.T.O.P.’s public health specialist.

CSPI praised the outbreak reporting records of Maine, Kansas, Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii and North Dakota.  Oregon and Minnesota are also well-recognized as having strong programs because both have laboratory facilities which quickly interview people who test positive for dangerous pathogens.

CSPI encouraged the twenty three states with the lowest reports (between three per million and one per million people in 2007) to improve their programs in order to protect consumers.

The twenty three states with the lowest reporting rates included; Delaware, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts, each with three outbreaks per million; Missouri, New Jersey, Virginia, Alabama, West Virginia, and Kentucky, each with two outbreaks per million; and Texas, North Carolina, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, Utah, Arkansas, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, each reporting just one outbreak per million.

Image Credit:  CDC/ Minnesota Department of Health, R.N. Barr Library; Librarians Melissa Rethlefsen and Marie Jones (cropped)