CDC: Foodborne Disease Outbreaks Increasingly Linked to Imports

Last week at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presented new research that reveals two emerging and disturbing trends:

Foodborne disease outbreaks caused by imported food appeared to rise in 2009 and 2010, and

Nearly half of the outbreaks implicated foods imported from areas which had not been associated with outbreaks previously.

An earlier report from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS) found that US food imports grew from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007, and that much of that growth occurred in fruit and vegetables, seafood and processed food products.

All told, researchers now estimate that about 16 percent of all the food Americans eat is imported, including up to 85 percent of the seafood and depending on the time of year, as much as 60 percent of fresh produce.

The CDC's recent study reviewed outbreaks reported to its Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System from 2005-2010 for implicated foods that were imported into the US. During that five-year period, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those outbreaks:

Nearly half (17) occurred in 2009 and 2010.

Fish (17 outbreaks) were the most common source of implicated imported foodborne disease outbreaks, followed by spices (six outbreaks including five from fresh or dried peppers).

Nearly 45 percent of the imported foods causing outbreaks came from Asia.

Keep this in mind, too: The CDC believes these findings likely underestimate the true number of outbreaks due to imported foods because the origin of many foods causing outbreaks is either not known or not reported.

The long overdue FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is a major step in establishing a prevention-based food safety system to address domestic as well as imported foods. But, in addition to stepped up efforts from the FDA, companies need to do more to ensure the safety of the food supply chain as they draw the line between profit and responsible corporate behavior.

"We need better and more information about what foods are causing outbreaks and where those foods are coming from," said Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist in CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases and lead author on the report. "Knowing more about what is making people sick, will help focus prevention efforts on those foods that pose a higher risk of causing illness."

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