Foodborne illnesses have been increasingly impacting the country’s health — and headlines — over the past decade. A recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention report found that major, multi-state foodborne outbreaks have tripled in the past 20 years, with the most recent being the largest and deadliest ever.
At first an anomaly, major outbreaks linked to contaminated meat, produce, or other food products have now become terrifyingly commonplace. The most recent, an E.coli outbreak stemming from Chipotle restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, has already sickened 39 people and shuttered 43 stores. And it’s not a first for the national chain.
As these numbers grow, so do the scientific and industrial advances. So why have these outbreaks continued to accelerate?
Oddly enough, these answers seem to lie in the advances themselves.
This one’s the common culprit. Since efficiency is king in the ever-growing business of factory farming, health conditions often slip through the cracks. Major farms have been known to cram animals into manure-lined living quarters with little ventilation — pumping the animals with human vaccines to prevent diseases. Many outbreaks also trace back to the meat processing plants associated with these industrial farms that also lean heavily on speediness. With slabs raw meat flying by on a conveyor belt, it’s easy for an inspector to miss stray (and potentially fatal) contaminants. Similar bacteria live in processing plants where produce is stored for long periods of time — another feature of modern industrial agriculture — before coming in contact with a consumer.
Thanks to laws rolling out new regulation, some these practices have been ended or adapted over the years, but many national outbreaks still lead back to these industrial settings.
As surveillance and regulation technology advances, so do these outbreaks. Why? No one was tracking these diseases as closely until recently. Now that foodborne illnesses have become a more understood threat, technology has advanced to track its every move. New technology makes it easier for researchers to locate people who’ve come in contact with a viral disease and pinpoint contaminates — ones that may have harmlessly gone unnoticed in the past — in major facilities.
In 1997, the CDC switched over to electronic reporting and surveillance of foodborne outbreaks — and it showed. The number of outbreaks nearly doubled in 1998, and remained above or near at that level for the following years. And this year, the CDC found similar trends in more recent data, concluding that “improvements in detection, investigation, and reporting of foodborne disease outbreaks help explain the increasing number of reported multistate outbreaks.”
The agricultural industry’s global reach, allowing us to have avocados and tomatoes in the depths of winter, has come with it’s own set of public health consequences. Now, contamination from a single source may reach far beyond a neighboring state. In 2011, for example, an E.coli outbreak in Germany and France grew to 4000 cases of infection in 16 countries and 55 deaths. And each country’s unique and complex food regulation policies create inconsistent tracking and handling practices, making it difficult to source an original virus.
“A failure in food safety at any link in this chain, from the environment, through primary production, processing, transport, trade, catering or in the home, can have significant health and economic consequences,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, in a statement for this year’s World Health Day.
Congress has been pushing for better regulation of the industry since 2011, when President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping overhaul of the country’s food safety system. But Congress has only provided the agencies involved with half the funding it needs to take off — leaving its progress at a standstill.