Food Poisoning Sickens 1 in 6 Americans Every Year, Kills 3,000

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced that about 48 million people—one in six Americans—get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die annually from <"">foodborne diseases. The CDC’s new estimates are the most accurate, to date, due to better data and methods used. The data appear in two articles in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The papers provide the most accurate picture yet of what foodborne pathogens are causing the most illness, and also estimates the proportion of foodborne illness without a known cause. The reports are the first comprehensive estimates since 1999 and are CDC’s first to estimate illnesses caused solely by foods eaten in the United States.

“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.”

CDC’s new estimates are lower than in 1999 report, largely due to improvements in the quality and quantity of the data used and new methods used to estimate foodborne-disease. For example, it is now known that most norovirus is not spread by tainted food, reducing foodborne norovirus estimates from 9.2 to about 5.5 million cases annually.

Of the total estimate of 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. In both the 1999 and current estimates, unspecified agents were responsible for roughly 80 percent of estimated illnesses.

“Foodborne illnesses and deaths are preventable, and as such, are unacceptable,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “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.”

Among the additional 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.

“People expect food to nourish them, not to harm them. So we need to intensify efforts to decrease the number of illnesses and deaths due to foodborne diseases,” said Christopher Braden, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases. “We now know more than ever what pathogens are causing the most harm, and we will continue our work to help protect people from these illnesses. Much that remains unknown about how and why people get sick and we are committed to learning more in the future.”

The full report is available online here. Detailed information on the estimates and methods is available here.

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