Food Poisoning Outbreaks Linked To Imports On The Rise

Food poisoning outbreaks linked to imported foods are on the rise, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It seems that fish and spices—specifically peppers—are making us the sickest, according to the CDC’s Hannah Gould, PhD, said WebMD. Gould’s statement appears in a report to the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, which took place this week.

“We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks,” Gould said in a news release, said WebMD. Her team reviewed food borne disease data for the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. In that time, imported foods caused 39 outbreaks and led to 2,348 reported illnesses, wrote WebMD, noting that half of those outbreaks occurred in the two most recent years of the study period.

“It’s too early to say if the recent numbers represent a trend, but CDC officials are analyzing information from 2011 and will continue to monitor for these outbreaks in the future,” Gould said, wrote WebMD.

Fish were the culprit in 17 outbreaks and spices in six, with five linked to fresh or dried peppers. Of all of the outbreaks, nearly half—45% to be exact—involved foods that originated in Asia.

The issue might not be so much that recent food is any more or less safe, but that so much more imported food is making its way into the U.S. said WebMD. From 1998 to 2007, U.S. food imports increased from $41 billion to $78 billion. Even more startling, noted WebMD, most seafood eaten in the U.S., a whopping 85%, comes here via imports, while fresh produce can be imported at rates as high as 60%.

As shocking as some of these figures are, Gould pointed out that the CDC numbers likely underestimated the actual impact of food borne outbreaks since many are never discovered and many illnesses go unreported, according to WebMD. “We need better—and more—information about what foods are causing outbreaks and where those foods are coming from,” Gould said. “Knowing more about what is making people sick will help focus prevention efforts on those foods that pose a higher risk of causing illness,” she added.

We previously wrote that, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in 2010, it rejected about 16,000 food shipments into the United States from the more than 10,000 million that arrived in over 320 ports. But, as much as the FDA says it does do to ensure Americans are provided with safe foods, the agency has its critics, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which said the FDA is unable to ensure food import safety. The GAO also pointed out that food imports are on the rise, noting that 10 years ago, 6 million FDA-regulated food products passed through U.S. ports; 24 million shipments were expected in 2011.

Despite the rise in items coming into U.S. ports, the number of investigators at the FDA has remained virtually unchanged, with only about 1,800 covering the entire nation. Not surprising that in 2010, the agency’s inspectors only actually reviewed 2.06% of all food-related imports. Even worse, only about 1.59% were expected to be examined in 2011 and this year should only see 1.47% inspected, said the Office of Regulatory Affairs.

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