Produce linked to more disease cases than poultry

Dec 1, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – Contaminated vegetables and fruits caused more cases of disease in recent years than poultry, eggs, or other food groups did, according to a recent report by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

CSPI reported that 554 illness outbreaks totaling 28,315 cases were linked to produce and produce dishes between 1990 and 2003. Poultry, the second largest category, was blamed for 476 outbreaks with 14,729 cases.

In particular, fresh produce may be surpassing poultry as a cause of Salmonella infections, according to CSPI. "From 1990 to 2001 poultry accounted for 121 Salmonella outbreaks and produce accounted for 80," the group said in a news release. "But in 2002-2003, produce accounted for 31 Salmonella outbreaks and poultry accounted for 29."

CSPI compiles foodborne-illness data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state health departments, and peer-reviewed journal articles. The database includes only the outbreaks in which two or more people got sick from eating the same food.

The group identified a total of 4,486 outbreaks involving 138,622 cases over the 14-year period, with only 7% of the outbreak reports coming from sources other than the CDC.

Produce-related outbreaks caused an average of 51 cases each, according to the report. Vegetables were blamed for 205 outbreaks involving 10,358 cases, and fruits for 93 outbreaks with 7,799 cases. Another 10,158 cases were traced to dishes involving more than one produce item.

Salmonella, noroviruses, and Cyclospora species accounted for most of the produce-related outbreaks, the report says.

To limit produce contamination, Caroline Smith DeWaal of CSPI commented in the news release, "FDA [the Food and Drug Administration] should require growers to limit the use of manure to times and products where it poses no risk. And packers and shippers should mark packaging to ensure easy traceback when fruits and vegetables are implicated in an outbreak."

The report says seafood was implicated in the largest number of outbreaks, 899, but the outbreaks were relatively small at about 10 cases each, for a total of 9,312 cases.

The other leading illness-causing food categories were beef and beef dishes, 438 outbreaks with 12,702 cases, and eggs and egg dishes, 329 outbreaks with 10,847 cases.

Another 812 outbreaks totaling 23,126 cases were traced to multiple-ingredient foods, such as pizza and salads, in which the contaminated ingredient was not identified, the report says.

Dairy products were blamed for 153 outbreaks totaling 5,156 cases. Almost a third of the outbreaks (32%) were linked to unpasteurized items.

Numbers of outbreaks and cases linked with other food items include:

  • Breads and bakery: 116 outbreaks, 3,493 cases
  • Beverages: 66 and 2,643
  • Pork and pork dishes: 170 and 5,859
  • Luncheon and other meats: 145 and 5,287

The report says the CDC has made several improvements in its foodborne disease surveillance and reporting programs in recent years but needs to do more. The agency "should mandate reporting by states, provide real-time reporting of outbreaks, and organize outbreaks by food hazard [rather than by pathogen] to increase the utility of its information," CSPI asserts.

CSPI also calls for a single federal agency to regulate food safety, in place of the current system involving 10 different agencies. The report notes that the Institute of Medicine and Congress's Government Accountability Office have made similar recommendations.

However, foodborne disease surveillance and research activities should remain in their present agencies, the report recommends.

See also:

CSPI report
http://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/outbreakalert2005.pdf

CSPI news release
http://www.cspinet.org/new/200511211.html

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