CDC says foodborne illness rising: What does that really mean?

This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced its findings for last year’s foodborne illness rates: reports of Salmonella, Campylobacter and Cyclospora infections were up.

Hold up, though. Are more people getting sick? Not necessarily.

The CDC recently published research suggesting that the increase may be due to better testing and reporting methods.

“The incidence of foodborne infections has remained largely unchanged,” the agency said in its report.

Wider use of culture-independent diagnostic tests makes it easier and faster to detect foodborne pathogens than in the past.

The numbers

The CDC monitored 10 states for laboratory-diagnosed infections attributed to eight foodborne pathogens. In 2018, the agency found about 25,000 infections. Almost 5,900 people were hospitalized, and 120 lost their lives.

The CDC said that it investigated 23 multi-state outbreaks in 2018, which is the highest number in over a decade. Several of these were quite large, like the E. coli outbreak associated with romaine lettuce tainted by contaminated irrigation water.

It might seem surprising that Cyclospora was highlighted, when usually more common bacterial pathogens dominate these studies. This is because 2018 saw large outbreaks of the foodborne parasite.

For the industry?

Food Safety Magazine notes that these findings mean that produce farms, food animal farms and meat and poultry processing facilities will benefit from more targeted prevention measures. The CDC noted that produce is a “major source” of foodborne illness, citing 2018’s two large romaine lettuce recalls due to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, while other common pathogens, Campylobacter and Salmonella, are often associated with chicken.

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