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.