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Health Team

Foodborne illnesses continue to rise as efforts to prevent them fail

Posted April 30, 2020 1:03 p.m. EDT

— Cases of potentially dangerous foodborne illnesses caused by common bacteria in the United States food supply increased during 2019 compared to the previous three years, according to a new report released Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC estimated that 48 million people get sick from various foodborne illnesses in the United States each year. Of those, approximately 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Experts stressed, however, that the data does not apply to the current pandemic of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

"There's no evidence right now to support transmission of Covid-19 by our food supply," said Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of the CDC's enteric diseases epidemiology branch.

"Covid-19 is caused by a different pathogen, with a different mode of transmission, different biology, different epidemiology," said food safety expert Benjamin Chapman, a professor in the department of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University, who was not involved in the report, who was not involved in the report.

"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 Covid-19 being transmitted by food at all," Chapman said.

A dangerous trend continues

The report analyzed data from the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) and found sicknesses caused by Campylobacter, Cyclospora, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC), Vibrio and Yersinia increased in 2019 as compared to the three-year period between 2016 and 2018.

At the same time, cases of Listeria, Salmonella and Shigella failed to decline during the same time period, despite continued efforts over the past decade to stop the spread of dangerous pathogens in the nation's food supply.

This means that the United States will not meet its food safety targets for "Healthy People 2020," a government program begun in 2010 with the goal of achieving "high-quality, longer lives free of preventable disease, disability, injury, and premature death."

"We've been stalled in many aspects of preventing foodborne disease for many years," Griffin said. "Our systems allow pathogens to enter our food supply and that we're not doing everything we can to get them out. We need to have better control measures at all levels."

Chapman agreed: "This is not a new problem," he said. "Food safety issues continue to occur along the food chain, from farms to processing plants to grocery stores to restaurants and the home."

"We spent a lot of time on trying to change behaviors and there are a lot of good things that are happening, but the actual payoff for public health is in the reduction of illness and we're just not seeing it."

New approaches are need to combat the problem, the report said, which must affect each part of the food chain, from farm to the final destination in restaurants and kitchens.

"It's not just one area," Chapman said. "We need more vigilance on the farm level. We need better technology in production and distribution. It's consumer habits. We need to rethink the ones that we have been looking at and do them in a smarter and better way. It really is how do we get people to care about this?"

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