The CDC has issued its counts for the extent and cause of illnesses and deaths caused by eating contaminated food for the years 2009-2015.
For starters, outbreaks of foodborne illness increased during this period.
From 2009–2015, the CDC reports:
- 5,760 outbreaks (more than one person becoming ill from the same source)
- 100,939 illnesses
- 5,699 hospitalizations
- 145 deaths
Every US state and territory reported at least one outbreak.
Multistate outbreaks were particularly serious. They accounted for only 3% of all outbreaks, but were responsible for:
- 11% of illnesses
- 34% of hospitalizations
- 54% of deaths.
What organisms caused the outbreaks? Of the 2,953 outbreaks in which the cause could be pinned to one organism, the top two causes were:
- Norovirus (1,130 outbreaks, accounting for 41% of the illnesses)
- Salmonella (896, accounting for 35%)
Listeria, Salmonella, and Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) accounted for 82% of all reported hospitalizations and 82% of the deaths.
What foods were associated with the outbreaks? Of the 1,281 outbreaks in which the contaminated food could be identified, the top carriers were:
- Fish (222 outbreaks),
- Dairy (136)
- Chicken (123)
Looking at illnesses, the most frequent associated foods were:
- Chicken (3,114 illnesses)
- Pork (2,670)
- Seeded vegetables, meaning tomatoes and beans (2572)
- Eggs (2470)
- Fruits (2420)
- Beef (1934)
What does all this mean?
Foodborne illnesses remain a serious public health problem, not least because it is so difficult to trace illnesses back to a specific source. The contaminated food could only be identified in about one-fifth of total outbreaks.
Although foods of animal origin were leading carriers of illness, plant foods are also at risk.
All of these illnesses are preventable. We have laws requiring food producers and handlers to follow food safety procedures. When they do, the risk of foodborne illness is greatly diminished.
These procedures were designed originally to prevent astronauts from getting sick in outer space under conditions of zero gravity (you don’t even want to think about the consequences of foodborne illness in a space capsule).
If the methods worse in outer space, they ought to work on earth—but only if they are designed and used appropriately.
These data argue for stronger food safety regulation.