Food-borne illness

About 48 million Americans are stricken with food-borne illness, of variable severity, every year. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examining the data surrounding this unfortunate situation was just released. They analyzed the statistics on foodborne illnesses from 1998 to 2008, and found, to some surprise, that leafy greens and dairy products are largely responsible for these outbreaks.

The study, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, looked at about 5000 outbreaks and almost 130,000 illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. Of those numbers, 23 percent of illnesses were caused by leafy greens while 14 percent were caused by dairy products. Dairy products accounted for 16 percent of hospitalizations, leafy vegetables for 14 percent and poultry for 12 percent. Poultry accounted for 19 percent and dairy for 10 percent of deaths. However, the actual number of illnesses is relatively small, with 277 people dying from illnesses linked to poultry and 140 dying from illnesses linked to dairy.

Patricia Griffin, senior author of the report and a food-borne disease expert at the CDC, emphasizes that The vast majority of meals are safe so don t let the numbers for leafy greens keep you from eating vegetables. Eating them is so important to a healthy diet. And in terms of dairy, many of those outbreaks are due to unpasteurized dairy products such as raw milk.

There are certain steps you can take to lower your own risk of illness such as avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen, washing hands often when preparing food and making sure to wash all raw food thoroughly before using. But ultimately, this CDC report is meant for government agencies and the food industry so that they can work to make food safer, especially now with the recent rules published for the Food Safety Modernization Act.

ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava notes One of the most foolish things people can do is to drink unpasteurized milk and fresh cheeses made from it. That is simply asking for trouble!

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom is far from convinced that any of this will make much of a difference. He says, the real problem is not the food per se, but the pathogen. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the infective agent is norovirus (aka the stomach flu). It is transmitted by the handling of food by someone who is, or has recently been infected. Proper refrigeration and cooking make no difference, since norovirus is almost impossible to kill. It is also the most contagious pathogen known. Fortunately, there is a vaccine against norovirus that is doing rather well in clinical trials.