The best of the data crunchers are saying it’s a whole lot safer to eat food in America now than it was at the beginning of the last decade. But you still may want to be careful if you’re dining out at a restaurant, or eating at a prison cafeteria. Food safety risks are the subjects of two new reports from respected and reliable sources: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In the Jan. 25, 2013 edition of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), CDC published an analysis of data on  foodborne illness outbreaks between 2009 and 2010, as Food Safety News reported that month. Now, in its Outbreak Alert! 2001-2010, CSPI examines a decade of outbreaks, revealing a downward trend, with the most dramatic drops coming in seafood, poultry and beef products. The bottom line in each of the reports is remarkably similar. CDC says, “The number of foodborne disease outbreaks reported in 2009 and 2010 declined 32 percent compared with the preceding five years.” CSPI says the incidence of foodborne illness outbreaks was down by more than 40 percent over the decade. Prior to 2011, CDC said foodborne illness in the U.S. sickened 72 million people annually. Then two years ago, that figure was cut to 48 million. Is it now being cut again? Not exactly. Authors of the CDC study say,”Because of changes in the surveillance system implemented in 2009, comparisons with preceding years should be made with caution.” CDC is now using what it calls the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS), which features online data entry. “Despite progress made by the (food) industry and by food safety regulators, contaminated food is still causing too many illnesses, visits to the emergency room, and deaths,” said CSPI’s Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, in a statement. “Yet state and local health departments and federal food safety programs always seem to be on the chopping block,” she said. “Those financial pressures not only threaten the progress we’ve made on food safety, but threaten our very understanding of which foods and which pathogens are making people sick.” One problem in trying to determine trends in foodborne illnesses, according to CSPI, is that such events are “notoriously underreported” because most people do not seek medical treatment for food poisoning. A full outbreak investigation is one in which both the responsible pathogen and the responsible food source are identified. CSPI reports that during the 10-year period it studied, the number of outbreaks that were fully investigated decreased from 46 percent in 2001 to 33 percent in 2010. As for restaurants, CSPI found there are roughly two and half times more illnesses caused by foodborne illnesses picked up by dining at restaurants than by eating at home. And while the number of prison outbreaks is relatively small, the number of illnesses caused by these outbreaks is high. Restaurants were involved in 1,786 outbreaks during the decade, events associated with at least 32,919 illnesses. Private residences were involved in 922 outbreaks resulting in 12,666 illnesses. By comparison, just 77 prison outbreaks sickened 10,660. Another 1,229 outbreaks occurred in multiple locations —schools, jobsites, catered events, etc.—and were responsible for at least 42,301 illnesses. Some of CSPI’s other findings include:

  • Some of the decline in the number of outbreaks is due to inadequate investigations, leading to fewer fully investigated events.
  • Foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were responsible for twice as many fully investigated outbreaks as those regulated by the U.S.Department of Agriculture.
  • Dairy and produce outbreak levels remained relatively unchanged, while most of the declines came in seafood, beef, pork and poultry,
  • Pound for pound, seafood remains the most risky food, followed by poultry, produce and dairy.
  • The most common contaminant/vehicle pairing is Salmonella in poultry.