The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year. That’s about twice the population of Texas. Of that, 128,000 people are hospitalized annually, and 3,000 people die.
Foodborne illnesses are underreported because some outbreaks are never relayed to local health departments, some are never identified, and some reported illnesses cannot be fully investigated. It’s voluntary for health departments to report foodborne illness data; when they do, it’s through the CDC’s National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS).
Based on data from NORS the number of reported illnesses has decreased 72% from 1998 to 2021. In 2021, 7,518 Americans reported becoming sick from a foodborne illness.
Foodborne illnesses fell by 26% during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to 2017–2019 averages. The drop in infections is attributed to stay-at-home orders and public health measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Foodborne illnesses are caused by harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances present in food. These contaminants can lead to a wide range of symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and in severe cases, hospitalization or death.
An outbreak is “when two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink.”
Food can be contaminated at any point, from production to processing, distribution, or preparation.
Contamination can be caused by biological contaminants such as viruses and bacteria, chemical contaminants such as heavy metals like lead and mercury, and physical contaminants that end up in food unintentionally, such as broken glass or pieces of plastic.
The CDC estimates that Norovirus is the top pathogen to cause foodborne illness, sickening 3.2 million to 8.3 million people every year.
In 2021, 25 people died from reported foodborne illness. From 1998 – 2021, 510 Americans died from reported foodborne illness. As mentioned previously, due to underreporting, foodborne illness deaths are estimated to be much higher, killing as many as 3,000 people per year.
The CDC estimates that norovirus and salmonella are the top two pathogens that cause hospitalizations. Salmonella is the top estimated pathogen to cause foodborne illness deaths. Campylobacter spp. also ranks in the top five pathogens for estimated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Anyone may become sick with a foodborne illness. However, the most susceptible include pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems due to conditions like HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, or organ transplants. These groups are more vulnerable to severe complications from pathogens like salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria.
People at greater risk for foodborne illness are encouraged to avoid certain foods such as raw and undercooked meats and seafood, soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, unwashed vegetables, raw or undercooked eggs.
Individuals, farmers, and others in the food production chain should follow recommended food safety practices to prevent foodborne outbreaks:
These recommendations can be summarized as clean, separate, cook, and chill.
Regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), play a critical role in enforcing and monitoring food safety standards, conducting routine inspections, and implementing traceability systems to identify sources of contamination. The FDA has a dedicated network of teams for this purpose.
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