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Spread of foodborne pathogens continues to climb, CDC says

Dive Brief:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released 2019 data finding foodborne illness is on the rise, compared to the period between 2016 and 2018. Rates of infections from campylobacter, cyclospora, shiga toxin-producing escherichia coli (STEC), vibrio and yersinia increased. Infections caused by listeria, salmonella and shigella remained unchanged. Rates of the salmonella typhimurium serotype declined.
  • This new data from the CDC indicates that the organization’s "Healthy People 2020" targets for reducing foodborne illness will not be met.
  • The data was collected by FoodNet — a collaboration of CDC, 10 state health departments, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the FDA —  from 10 sources, covering approximately 15% of the U.S. population.

Dive Insight:

This CDC report shows foodborne pathogens are increasing across the board, and chicken and leafy greens were specifically called out as notable culprits in transmission. These two sectors were largely responsible for instances of salmonella, cyclospora and listeria infection.

Poultry and lettuce have faced a tough couple of years. Romaine lettuce was the cause of major E. coli outbreaks in the past two years, with the most recent outbreak occurring last fall

Likewise, poultry has been under scrutiny. In 2019, the CDC reported nearly a third of salmonella cases were linked to meat or poultry. In a 2016 update to its Salmonella Action Plan, FSIS called the pathogen the leading cause of bacterial foodborne illness in the U.S., causing about 1.2 million illnesses annually.

With foodborne illnesses continuing to plague the U.S. food industry, the government and industry members have been working to find solutions, and are taking drastic measures when outbreaks occur. As foodborne illness cases mounted in late 2018, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb asked retailers, restaurants and other commercial outlets to pull any romaine lettuce from shelves and destroy it just two days before Thanksgiving — the first produce product pull request since a spinach outbreak in 2006.

There have also been longer term solutions in development. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, calls for growers to test their irrigation water and take steps to prevent contaminated sources from being used on produce. However, the FDA announced in 2017 that implementation would be delayed until at least 2022.

While farmers wait for the regulations associated with the Food Safety Modernization Act to kick in, lettuce farmers will face increased oversight from the FDA, which plans to collect 270 raw post-harvest samples in the California and Arizona growing regions during the next year. 

In the poultry sector, various vaccines for diseases like bird flu and salmonella are under development as both farmers and governmental agencies look for ways to reduce the proliferation of these pathogens. The CDC report notes the decline in the typhimurium serotype of salmonella is related to the widespread practice of vaccination. The report also illustrates that after the United Kingdom implemented widespread chicken vaccination and improved farm hygiene, salmonella enteritidis infections declined.

"Targeting other serotypes through poultry vaccination could be one way to reduce human illnesses in the United States," the report said.

The government is not the only entity working to reduce the number of illnesses resulting from foodborne pathogens. The leafy greens industry has recently taken steps to improve production processes. Producers have tightened up grower requirements and recently embarked on a multi-year food safety initiative involving government, academia and industry to better understand the impact of pathogens on leafy greens in areas including Yuma County, Arizona and the Imperial Valley in California.

Independent companies are also taking steps to prevent contamination. Tyson Ventures, the meat company's VC arm, invested in Clear Labs' automated food safety platform, which can detect salmonella in 24 hours instead of three to five days.

However, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, eradicating these outbreaks will require a root cause analysis to find the underlying reasons for how and why foodborne illness outbreaks occur. For this intervention to be successful, companies and governmental agencies cannot operate independently. The report notes that a successful root cause analysis requires the effort to be synchronized across food industries, regulatory agencies and academic institutions.

Such an effort could not only eliminate the reasons behind an outbreak, but also prevent it in the future. This could lessen the industry’s reliance on product recalls that result in financial losses from sales declines and wasted product. Preventing recalls and outbreaks also has the possibility of allaying post-outbreak consumer concerns, which can make for hesitant buyers and prolong the drop in sales figures that companies experience after reports of food contamination.

Source: Food Dive

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