Foodborne illness on the rise: What’s really going on

Chances are you or someone you know has gotten food poisoning this year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illness impacts one in six people in the U.S. every year. That’s 48 million people.

And with reports increasing of foodborne illness and outbreaks, it’s worth examining the “hows” and “whys” to understand what’s really going on.

Fast facts

  • CNN reports that about 31 pathogens are the main culprits behind foodborne illness. This includes the big names: norovirus, Salmonella , Shiga toxin-producing E. coli and the notorious Listeria and its many strains, among others.
  • These pathogens amount to 200 illness clusters annually, of which about 15 are fully fledged outbreaks.
  • In the first half of 2018, there have already been 13 multi-state outbreaks in the U.S.
  • Between 1998 and 2015, foodborne illness outbreaks stemming from restaurants increased to 60% of incidents.

What contributes to outbreaks?

Seasonality is definitely a factor in outbreak frequency.

“We do see more outbreaks of foodborne illness reported in the warmer summer months, where opportunities for food abuse rise,” food science expert Catherine Donnelly told CNN.

But beyond seasonal changes, foodborne illness is on the rise for all times of the year. Part of this is because of better accountability and awareness.

“Surveillance has drastically improved and state public health labs are linked to CDC databases, allowing quick identification of patterns of illness and links to food products,” Donnelly said. “As a result, we see more reports of foodborne illness.”

Simply put, food processors and authorities are paying greater attention.

There are also more tools for environmental monitoring of processing facilities, and for investigating in the event of an outbreak. With the advent of new genetic tools, like next-generation sequencing, outbreak investigators can identify specific pathogenic strains involved in an outbreak.

Geographic factors

Technological improvements in communications and transportation means our global food supply chain is bigger than ever before. This alone makes it hard to control food safety risks — there are just so many factors involved. Even on a smaller scale, consumers can more easily get their hands on food products from outside their own backyard.

“Foods travel longer distances to get from farms to consumers, and pathogens can be introduced along the way,” said Donnelly. “There is wider geographic distribution of centrally produced foods, so when something goes wrong during production, the impacts are widespread.”

Current consumer trends can also change the landscape. As more consumers grow to prefer fresh produce, we see some risk of illness increase, as fresh produce is often sold and prepared without a bacteria-destroying kill step, like cooking, freezing, or the use of an antimicrobial wash.

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