Wednesday, December 15, 2010

As Food Safety Bill Remains In Limbo, CDC Releases New Report On Foodborne Disease

Most comprehensive foodborne illness figures since 1999: 3,000 deaths, 48 million Americans sickened by tainted foods; Salmonella is leading cause of hospitalizations and fatality; "We must, and can, do better," FDA Commissioner Hamburg says
UPDATE: President Obama signed the bill on Jan. 4, 2010
UPDATE: The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was approved by the US House on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010.
As S 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, still awaits Congressional passage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today released a new report that finds that about 48 million Americans get ill from food borne disease each year, with about 3,000 of these cases being fatal. Thanks to a mistake in wording, the food safety legislation did not clear Congress, and is now attached to the 2,000 page Senate spending bill that will lay out $1.1 trillion to fund the departments and agencies of the federal government through September 2011, when the government's current fiscal year end. An initial vote on the spending legislation could occur as soon as Thursday. UPDATE, Dec. 16: The Omnibus spending bill has evaporated. The fate of the food safety legislation is now unclear.

The new CDC report is the first comprehensive estimate of foodborne illness since 1999, and CDC's first to estimate illnesses caused solely by foods eaten in the United States. It also dramatically downsizes CDC's former estimates: CDC had previously estimated that about that 5,000 Americans died each year from foodborne disease, with about 78 million made ill annually.

CDC's new statistical calculation of 48 million Americans translates to about 1 in 6 people falling ill from foodborne disease, with an estimated 128,000 requiring hospitalization. Salmonella has been identified as the leading cause of fatalities and illnesses, responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations due to known pathogens transmitted by food. The figures are the most accurate to date, due to better data and methods used, according to CDC, and will be published today in two articles in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

CDC and FDA, interestingly, are using the new report as an opportunity to call for passage of the food safety legislation--despite the fact that the stats seem to indicate that there are fewer Americans made ill by tainted foods.

"Foodborne illnesses and deaths are preventable, and as such, are unacceptable," said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., in a statement. "We must, and can, do better by intensifying our efforts to implement measures that are prevention-oriented and science-based. We are moving down this path as quickly as possible under current authorities but eagerly await passage of new food safety legislation that would provide us with new and long overdue tools to further modernize our food safety program."

Of the estimated 48 million illnesses annually, CDC estimates that 9.4 million illnesses are due to 31 known foodborne pathogens. The remaining 38 million illnesses result from unspecified agents, which include known agents without enough data to make specific estimates,
agents not yet recognized as causing foodborne illness, and "agents not yet discovered."

"We've made progress in better understanding the burden of foodborne illness and unfortunately, far too many people continue to get sick from the food they eat," said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D, M.P.H. "These estimates provide valuable information to help CDC and its partners set priorities and further reduce illnesses from food."

In other words, they've studied their own data set more completely.

Among the CDC findings for foodborne illness due to "known" pathogens:

* Salmonella was the leading cause of estimated hospitalizations and deaths, responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations due to known pathogens transmitted by food.

*About 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths were due to seven pathogens: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E.coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens.

*Nearly 60 percent of estimated illnesses, but a much smaller proportion of severe illness, was caused by norovirus.

Information resources
CDC--and USDA--continue to "encourage consumers to take an active role in preventing foodborne infection" by following safe food-handling and preparation tips of separating meats and produce while preparing foods, cooking meat and poultry to the right temperatures, promptly chilling leftovers, and avoiding unpasteurized milk and cheese and raw oysters. To learn about how to prevent foodborne illness, visit

The full report is available online at

For more detailed information on the estimates and methods, visit

To learn more about foodborne illness trends, visit the FoodNet site at