According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illness caused by bacteria increased dramatically in 2019 compared to the three years prior. The CDC notes that foodborne illnesses that are seemingly on the rise are in no way related to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2).
Food safety expert Benjamin Chapman says,
“The foodborne pathogens that we’re talking about here are ones that we have identified for years that cause millions and millions of illnesses from consuming food. We don’t have any examples or any history of Covid-19 being transmitted by food at all.”
This includes foodborne pathogens like:
- Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC)
In addition to foodborne illnesses related to these pathogens increasing, food safety experts also say that illnesses related to bacteria like Listeria and Salmonella have not declined. Despite more than a decade of focused efforts to stop dangerous pathogens from entering the food supply, these foodborne illnesses continue to sicken and even kill thousands of Americans each year.
Rates of Foodborne Illnesses in the U.S.
According to the CDC, around 48 million people suffer from foodborne illnesses each year. Around 128,000 people require hospitalization, and around 3,000 die. The CDC says that there are eight primary foodborne illnesses that affect Americans each year. Those are:
Campylobacter affects around 1.5 million Americans each year. The symptoms include stomach cramps, fever and often bloody diarrhea. This bacteria is incredibly pungent, with as little as a drop of raw chicken juice being enough to make someone sick.
Cyclospora is a tiny parasite that is generally found in imported produce. The one-celled parasite causes extreme symptoms including vomiting, headache, body aches, fever and severe diarrhea. The CDC warns that watery diarrhea associated with Cyclospora can be “frequent and sometimes explosive.”
Exposure to Listeria bacteria causes an illness called listeriosis. Listeria bacteria are most commonly found in dairy products, with illnesses attributed to ice cream or soft cheeses. Listeria has also been found in produce, including cantaloupe, celery and sprouts.
Listeriosis is a serious infection most often developing in older adults, children, people with weak immune systems and pregnant women. Listeriosis can cause severe disease in fetuses and newborns, and can lead to bloodstream infections in older adults or people with weak immune systems.
Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals and people. This bacteria is often ingested through food or water that is contaminated. The bacteria can grow in many types of food, including poultry and eggs, leafy greens, pork and some processed foods.
The CDC estimates that Salmonella causes 1.35 million foodborne illnesses each year. It is responsible for 26,500 hospitalizations and around 420 deaths each year. These numbers are already alarming, but the CDC says that for every confirmed case of Salmonella, there may be as many as 30 unreported cases.
Shigella is a very contagious bacteria that commonly spreads in childcare settings, schools or public swimming pools. These germs live in diarrhea, and can remain in diarrhea for up to two weeks after the illness subsides. The CDC estimates that around 450,000 cases of diarrhea each year are due to Shigella.
Vibrio is a type of bacteria that causes vibriosis. Vibriosis is an illness that causes watery or bloody diarrhea. Around 80,000 people develop vibriosis each year, and an estimated 100 die due to the illness or complications. Vibriosis is most often transmitted by exposing an open wound to seawater, or by eating raw or undercooked seafood.
Yersinia is a lesser-known bacteria that most commonly occurs due to eating undercooked pork. Each year, around 17,000 people develop yersiniosis. Around 640 people require hospitalization and around 35 people die due to this illness. Sadly, yersiniosis primarily affects children.
What the Increase in Foodborne Illnesses Means
With certain foodborne illnesses on the rise, and others continuing at a steady pace, the U.S. will not meet food safety targets established in the Healthy People 2020 program. The program began in 2010 with a goal of,
“Achieving high-quality, longer lives free of preventable disease, disability, injury and premature death.”
Experts say that progress in preventing foodborne illnesses has been stalled in many ways. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are new challenges on the horizon. Dr. Patricia Griffin is the CDC’s chief of enteric, or intestinal, diseases epidemiology branch. She says,
“We’ve been stalled in many aspects of preventing foodborne disease for many years. Our systems allow pathogens to enter our food supply and we’re not doing everything we can to get them out. We need to have better control measures at all levels.”
Experts agree that food safety continues to be a concern at all levels of the food production cycle. Those levels include farms, processing plants, grocery stores, restaurants and even at home. The best way to protect public health is by reducing foodborne illnesses, and that, sadly, is not happening.
Fortunately, experts are hopeful that positive change can happen, and the rate of foodborne illnesses can be reduced. Experts look to changes in the fast food industry after the massive E. coli outbreak in 1993. The outbreak prompted fast food restaurants to be more thorough in sourcing and overseeing their meat supplies.
Experts say that grocery stores can follow suit and require their food to meet certain microbiologic quality standards. Farmers can also take measures to keep their animals and plants safe. Poultry farmers have begun vaccinating chickens against certain subtypes of Salmonella. Since this began, the rates of those subtypes have decreased.
What Consumers Can Do to Prevent Foodborne Illnesses
To protect you and your family from foodborne illnesses, the CDC recommends consumers do the following:
- Wash your hands before and after handling any food products.
- Wash all work surfaces, cutting boards and utensils before and after use.
- Separate all raw meat, poultry and seafood from ready-to-eat foods.
- Use a separate cutting board for meats and fresh foods.
- Cook all food to the correct internal temperature to ensure bacteria is killed off. Use a food thermometer.
- Keep your refrigerator at the correct temperature of 40° F or below.
- Refrigerate any leftover food within two hours of cooking.
Consumers can also help prevent foodborne illnesses by being involved. Consumers can certainly get involved in their communities and support legislation for food safety and quality. Many countries are implementing food safety legislation to promote change. In the United Kingdom (U.K.) for example, food safety legislation significantly reduced the rates of Salmonella in the 1980’s. Those changes have remained and foodborne illnesses are not nearly as common.
Since we know that all food safety and reducing foodborne illnesses is a job that requires all of us, it is in our best interests as consumers to do our part. Follow good food safety guidelines and support legislation that can positively impact our food supply.