A year in review: 2018’s foodborne illness outbreaks

While the official numbers aren’t in yet, the trend of 2018’s foodborne illness outbreak situation seems to be “more isn’t always a bad thing.”

Over the course of the year, food safety experts have pointed out that, at first glance, the number of outbreaks seems to be increasing. But the truth is, something else is increasing: better reporting and the use of investigative technology.

“The science is getting better, and the public health resources are getting better, and we’re just getting better at finding things,” food safety expert Benjamin Chapman told LiveScience.

Among the several thousand recalls to be tallied in 2018, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintains a list of the most notable ones. Here’s a recap of those, including some from outside the U.S.

“Lettuce” discuss E. coli
The year has seen two large E. coli outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce and leafy greens. Eventually traced back to runoff from cattle farms near the lettuce field irrigation canals, the outbreaks highlighted the importance of water testing for pathogens like E. coli.

Beef and sheep and chicken, oh my
Up to 12 million pounds of raw beef were recalled in the U.S. during October and November, with nearly 250 people sickened with salmonellosis. A different strain of Salmonella was tied to a huge outbreak in sheep meat in the United Kingdom, which left nearly 300 people sick.

Also during the year, raw chicken was recalled more than once due to Salmonella, which isn’t a huge surprise considering that up to 12% of all U.S. foodborne illness outbreaks come from chicken, the largest percentage of any food product. Salmonella is most commonly associated with chicken meat and eggs (of which more than 200 million were recalled in the spring of 2018 alone).

Also tricky — Salmonella made headlines with a different kind of poultry in November when an outbreak was linked to turkey, (inconveniently) just in time for the U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving (a holiday that comes with a traditional turkey dinner).

Even more Salmonella
Salmonella, unfortunately versatile, wasn’t just found in animal protein this year. In June, pre-cut melon products were recalled in the U.S. after 60 people were infected with the strain Salmonella Adelaide. This included watermelons and cantaloupes, dampening more than a few summer picnic plans. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration imposed its first-ever mandatory recall this year after Salmonella was detected in batches of kratom, a loosely regulated recreational/medicinal drug made from a leafy plant of the same name.

The cycle of Cyclospora
There were two outbreaks of Cyclospora in the U.S. this year, sickening more than 400 people. Cyclospora is notable for being a parasite, not a bacterium, and is usually found in tropical climates, making the 2018 outbreaks somewhat unusual.

The biggest recorded Listeria outbreak
Although the outbreak mostly took place in 2017, 2018 saw the resolution of the largest-ever recorded outbreak of listeriosis, according to the World Health Organization. The outbreak occurred in South Africa and was spread through a popular ready-to-eat meat product called polony. All in all, there were nearly 1,000 reported illnesses and at least 183 people lost their lives before, after a long investigation, a source was identified.

What’s in store
Pacific Standard reports that according to the latest data, foodborne illness rates haven’t risen along with outbreak reporting statistics — a clear indicator that increased investigation technology is behind the rise in recalls and outbreaks.

With that information, we might guess that 2019 will continue along a similar path, with outbreak statistics remaining higher than previous years, despite the fact that outbreaks aren’t actually occurring at a much higher rate.

“As we get better at reducing risk of foodborne illness, we also get better at finding things we didn’t know were there,” Chapman told LiveScience. “I don’t expect that we would have any less or any more outbreaks in 2019.”

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