Most foodborne illness outbreaks are from non-produce food items, according to a new report from the Alliance for Food and Farming. The report, which analyzes Centers for Disease Control data associated with foodborne illness outbreaks, found that from 1990 to 2007:
88 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks were from non-produce food items. (See examples here and here.)
12 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks were associated with produce.
Of this 12 percent, more than 10 percent were associated with improper handling of produce after leaving the farm. For instance, 65 percent of outbreaks traced back to a produce item can be attributed to improper handling in a restaurant, most likely the result of cross contamination or improper employee hygiene. Mishandling at community events caused 14 percent of the produce-related outbreaks, followed by mishandling in the home which represents 13 percent of outbreaks associated with produce.
2 percent of produce-related outbreaks were associated with the growing, packing, shipping or processing of produce.
This is the second time the Alliance for Food and Farming has conducted a review of the CDC databases. The first review, based on data from 1990 through 2004, resulted in similar findings, indicating that illnesses associated with produce are still low despite some recent outbreaks.
Even so, the report concludes that continued emphasis must be placed on further reducing incidents of on-farm contamination through applied research and increased oversight to ensure proper practices are being followed in produce operations. After all, food borne illness outbreaks affect public health, consumer confidence, business reputations, and company profits.
"Farmers are responding by enhancing their food safety practices to protect public health as well as their own economic interests," Ed Beckman, President of the California Tomato Farmers and a member of the Alliance for Food and Farming Management Board, said in a press release. He noted that members of the California Tomato Farmers along with tomato farmers around the country suffered significant financial losses when tomatoes were erroneously targeted in a highly publicized 2008 Salmonella outbreak. "Farmers are extremely motivated to work to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks from happening on their farms. But if the goal is to reduce future illness outbreaks in a significant way, it's crucial for government agencies to provide information that accurately tracks the source of foodborne illness outbreaks. Farmers need this information as do restaurants and consumers if real improvements are to be made and measured."
Congress is currently working on sorely-needed legislation to improve safety in the US food supply chain. In addition, organizations such as the National Restaurant Association and the Partnership for Food Safety Education currently provide education and information on food safety.