CDC Reports Rising Rates of Foodborne Illness

By Caitlin Aylward

The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that that the frequency of foodborne illness outbreaks have not improved over the past decade, despite the passage of the most recent Food Safety Modernization Act.

Eating grass-fed meat is one way to reduce your chances of contracting a food-borne illness. (Photo credit: American Cattlemen)

According to the CDC, an estimated one in six Americans became sick last year from foodborne pathogens. Of the 48 million Americans who contracted foodborne illnesses, 128,000 were hospitalized and 3,000 people died.

The most recent statistics from the CDC report that outbreaks of salmonella, vibrio, campylobacter, and listeria have all remained steady or increased in prevalence since 2007. Only incidences of E. coli have declined within this time period, and only marginally so.

Salmonella and E. coli are both foodborne pathogens that can lead to illness if contaminated fecal matter comes into contact with food. Poultry is the food most commonly associated with salmonella outbreaks, whereas E. coli bacteria are typically found in ground meat products. Both pathogens, however, are linked to the standard grain-based diets, as well as the factory farm conditions, in which cattle and poultry are raised.

Grain-based feeds can encourage the growth of dangerous E. coli bacteria in a cow’s stomach, whereas grass-based diets eliminate the potential development of these dangerous pathogens.

Moreover, livestock and chickens raised in factory farms are often packed tightly into feedlots, where animals stand in pools of manure, allowing foodborne pathogens to circulate throughout the facility and contaminate the feed. In modern slaughterhouses, the animals’ hides are also often covered in manure, making it difficult to keep contaminated fecal matter from coming into contact with an animal’s flesh. If farmers use raw manure for fertilizer, foodborne pathogens, such as E. coli or salmonella, can even contaminate produce.

Every year in the United States, millions of tons of chicken, beef, and pork products are recalled due to potential food safety concerns. It was a series of foodborne outbreaks in 2010, however, that catalyzed the necessary consumer support for the creation of the Food Safety Modernization Act. On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the act into law, with the aim of creating regulations that would prevent rather than merely react to outbreaks of food-borne illness.

Yet government regulators have missed the critical deadlines for enacting the act’s central provisions, including improved safety standards for imported foods in addition to more-stringent safety regulations for domestic foods. As a result, the government has failed to reach its original goal of reducing incidences of salmonella (the number-one cause of food-related infections) to seven infections per 100,000 people by 2010. Instead, the CDC reported a confirmed 17 infections in 2010, which was then only reduced to 16 cases in 2011.

What do you think? How can governments and the food industry eliminate outbreaks of foodborne illness? Let us know in the comments!

Caitlin Aylward is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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