According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) data, rates of infection from two types of foodborne illness decreased in 2014 compared to data from 2006 through 2008. 

Specifically, infection rates of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli O157 declined due to continued scrutiny of beef products. Cases of Salmonella, Typhimurium and Yersinia also declined.

However, rates of some other foodborne illnesses, such as less common types of salmonella, increased. Specifically, the data demonstrated that rates of Campylobacter and Vibrio increased during 2014, with Campylobacter increasing by 13% and Vibrio increasing by 52% when compared to the data from 2006 through 2008. 


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In addition, two other less common types of Salmonella, Javiana and Infantis, more than doubled during the period, although there was no explanation for the increase. However, analyzing all types of Salmonella revealed no change in rates during 2014.1

The data highlights the need for additional prevention strategies to reduce the spread of certain types of foodborne illness. 

“Foodborne infections continue to be an important public health problem in the U.S. This year’s FoodNet report shows some progress, but much work remains. Illness from six foodborne infections showed little or no recent improvements,” said Olga L. Henao, PhD, who leads CDC’s FoodNet.

FoodNet tracks nine common foodborne pathogens (Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Listeria, Salmonella, STEC O157 and non-O157, Shigella, Vibrio and Yersinia) throughout 10 states in the U.S. 

These include Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Tennessee, and selected counties in California, Colorado, and New York, representing approximately 15% of the U.S. population.

In 2014 the surveillance system identified more than 19,000 infections that included approximately 4,400 hospitalizations and 71 deaths. Of the more than 19,000 infections identified, Salmonella and Campylobacter were the most common, causing approximately 14,000 infections.1

Diagnostic Testing Methods Might Affect Disease Incidence

According to Henao, recent changes in diagnostic practices are challenging the FDA’s ability to find outbreaks and monitor disease trends. Culture‐independent diagnostic tests (CIDTs) help doctors diagnose infections faster, and the use of these tests is increasing. 

“However, these tests do not provide the information needed to characterize the bacteria that cause the infections – information that helps us find outbreaks and track trends. Public health officials, diagnostic laboratories, CIDT kit manufacturers, and clinicians must work together to get the additional laboratory testing needed when a CIDT is positive, so that we can continue to discover and solve foodborne outbreaks,” said Henao.

According to Henao, increasing use of culture-independent tests by clinical laboratories might affect rates. As observed for STEC non-O157 infections, culture-independent testing might increase or decrease reported incidence because fewer cases might be diagnosed through traditional methods. 

“Also, health care-seeking behaviors and other characteristics of the population in the surveillance area might affect the generalizability of the findings. Third, the proportion of illnesses transmitted by non-food routes differs by pathogen. Data provided in this report are not limited to infections from food,” said Henao.

New FDA Regulations to Focus on Preventing Food Safety Problems

In an effort to reduce the incidence of foodborne infections, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to publish new regulations in 2015, under the provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The new regulations will be geared toward ensuring food safety. 

According to Lauren E. Sucher, press officer at the FDA, the Food Safety Modernization Act enables the FDA to focus more on preventing food safety problems, rather than relying primarily on reacting to problems after they occur.

The law also provides the FDA with new enforcement authorities designed to achieve higher rates of compliance with prevention- and risk-based food safety standards and to help officials better respond and contain problems when they do occur. 

The law also gives the FDA important new tools to hold imported foods to the same standards as domestic foods and directs the FDA to build an integrated national food safety system in partnership with state and local authorities.

“Building a new food safety system based on prevention will take time, and the FDA is creating a process for getting this work done. Congress has established specific implementation dates in the legislation. Some authorities will go into effect quickly, such as the FDA’s new authority to order companies to recall food, and others require FDA to prepare and issue regulations and guidance documents,” said Sucher.

Clinical Practitioners, Patients and Food Industry Need to Make Efforts

It is not only important for government agencies such as the FDA and CDC to make efforts to reduce foodborne illness, but clinical practitioners, patients, and the food industry also need to be aware and make concerted efforts to reduce the spread of foodborne illnesses.

In addition, Henao said that consumers should know there are risks to consuming unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, and raw oysters, especially for groups at greater risk for foodborne illness. 

In addition to what the public can do, the food industry should require safer ingredients and implement preventive controls, while restaurants and consumers should follow safe practices in the kitchen. These include cooking meat to proper temperatures, washing produce, and preparing meat and fresh produce on different surfaces.

Conclusion

Overall, reducing foodborne illness requires systematic, targeted changes that make food safer before it reaches consumers. “At the end of the day, those changes should mean fewer people getting sick,” said Henao.

Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MS, MPH

References:

1.     Reducing FoodBorne Infections. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention