A report released Monday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) revealed that, over a 10-year period, there were about twice as many foodborne illness outbreaks linked to restaurants than to private homes.
The 17-page report, entitled, “Outbreak Alert! 2014, A Review of Foodborne Illness in America From 2002-2011,” looked at “solved outbreaks” in which investigators identified both a food and a pathogen. There were 1,610 such outbreaks during that period linked to restaurants, which sickened more than 28,000 people, compared to 893 outbreaks linked to private homes, causing nearly 13,000 cases of foodborne illness. “Unfortunately, fewer and fewer outbreaks were solved by public health officials over the 10-year period, leaving a lot of important information undiscovered in the data,” the report noted. Another CSPI finding was that, of 104 foodborne illness outbreaks during the 2002-2011 period that were linked to milk, 70 percent of them were caused by raw milk. “In other words, although less than one percent of consumers drink raw milk, they bear 70 percent of the burden of illnesses caused by milk-borne outbreaks,” the report stated. CSPI’s senior food safety attorney, Sarah Klein, called pasteurization of milk “one of the most important public health advances of the last 100 years, sparing countless people from infections and deaths caused by Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria,” adding, “Consumers should avoid raw milk, and lawmakers should not expand its availability.” The report also found a trend in the data of decreased reporting of foodborne illness outbreaks. States reported 42 percent fewer outbreaks to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011 than in 2002. CSPI noted this doesn’t mean that fewer Americans are being sickened, but the current recession, flu pandemics, and post-9/11 bioterrorism investments have diverted resources and attention away from identifying and investigating foodborne illness outbreaks. CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal said that underreporting of foodborne illness outbreaks has “reached epidemic proportions” in recent years. “Despite the improvements in food safety policy in the past decade, far too many Americans still are getting sick, being hospitalized, or even dying due to contaminated food,” she said. Regarding the types of food linked to outbreaks, the report found that fresh produce, seafood, and packaged foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were responsible for more than twice as many solved outbreaks during the period as meat and poultry products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. CSPI said that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA), which became law more than three years ago, was designed to give FDA authority to conduct more frequent inspections of particularly higher-risk food-processing facilities. However, the agency is still finalizing complex regulations, and Congress “has been unwilling to provide sufficient funds for the FDA to bring the reform law into full effect.”