Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to imported food appeared to rise
between 2009 and 2010, according to a new analysis released by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday.
reported that half of the foods implicated in outbreaks were imported
from “areas which previously had not been associated with outbreaks.”
The research was presented at the International Conference on Emerging
Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.
“It’s too early to say if the
recent numbers represent a trend, but CDC officials are analyzing
information from 2011 and will continue to monitor for these outbreaks
in the future,” said Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist in CDC’s
Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases and the
lead author of the study.
The report looked at outbreaks
reported to CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System from
2005 to 2010 and then parsed out which implicated foods were imported.
CDC researchers found that in that five-year period, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses
were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those outbreaks, 17, or almost half of them occurred in 2009 and 2010.
The review found that fish was the most common culprit, with 17 outbreaks total. The second most common food group was spices, the report said six outbreaks were tied to spices, including five from fresh
or dried peppers.
Where exactly were these imported foods from? CDC reported that nearly 45 percent of the foods tied to
outbreaks came from Asia.
“As our food supply becomes more
global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially
exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too,” Gould said.
David Acheson, former associate commissioner of foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who now consults for the food industry, said the results of CDC’s review were not all that surprising considering the United States is not only importing more food, but more high risk items like seafood, spices and produce.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), food imports grew
from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007 and most of that growth was in produce, seafood and processed food products. It’s now estimated that as much as 85 percent of the
seafood consumed domestically is imported and, depending on the season, as much as 60 percent of fresh produce is imported.
On the whole, ERS estimates that 16 percent of all of the food Americans eat each year is imported.
In CDC’s release on the review, it noted that the findings “likely underestimate
the true number of outbreaks due to imported foods, as the origin of many
foods causing outbreaks is either not known or not reported.”
need better – and more – information about what foods are causing
outbreaks and where those foods are coming from,” said Gould. “Knowing
more about what is making people sick, will help focus prevention
efforts on those foods that pose a higher risk of causing illness.”
Food safety experts and public health officials have been working to improve food attribution data so more can be understood about which foods are high risk, where contamination occurs in the supply chain, and how it can be prevented.
Acheson noted that it’s not necessarily an issue of whether food is imported or not, but whether producers are focused on prevention.
“Let’s not forget that there is also plenty to focus on domestically – such as the recent major Listeria outbreak and not move all the emphasis onto imported foods,” he said in an email. “This is part of the reason why [The Food Safety Modernization Act] has focused so much on preventive controls for imported foods and why FDA has changed their model away from relying just on port of entry inspections.”