The U.S. Isn’t Very Good At Preventing Our Food From Making Us Sick

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released this year’s food safety report — and while the agency is celebrating some incremental progress in combating foodborne illnesses, it’s clear there’s still much more work that needs to be done. When compared to a 2006–2008 period, the rate of foodborne illnesses in 2013 either increased or stayed about the same for most major disease agents.

One area of relative progress is the rate of salmonella — the most common foodborne illness in the country — which decreased by about nine percent in 2013 compared with the previous three years. But that decline simply brings the rate of infection down to where it was in 2006–2008. On the other end of the spectrum, vibrio infections, which are often linked to eating raw or undercooked shellfish, jumped by 75 percent:

CREDIT: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
CREDIT: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Fortunately, vibrio is the least common bacteria, contributing to just about one percent of foodborne illnesses. Food safety experts are more concerned about salmonella and campylobacter, which are both associated with chicken, and E. coli, which includes certain strains that can make young children severely ill. Unfortunately, we’re not exactly improving much in those areas (note that there aren’t any actual smiles in the CDC’s graphic above).

“For most pathogens, we haven’t really been able to move the needle in recent years,” Chris Waldrop, the director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America, said in a statement regarding the new report. “The decrease in Salmonella illnesses is positive, but it’s too early to tell if that will be sustained.”

In the United States, about 48 million people fall ill after eating contaminated food every year, and about 128,000 of them get sick enough to land in the hospital. Advocates have been pushing for better food safety regulations for years, noting that our meat industry has considerably less oversight than Europe’s. Nonetheless, the agencies that oversee food safety have been plagued with rounds of budget cuts, including across-the-board cuts resulting from last fall’s sequester. And although the first major food safety overhaul in over 70 years, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, seeks to address some of these issues, FDA officials warn that won’t become a reality without more funding.

Still, federal health officials say they’re hopeful about future policy changes that may help decrease the number of Americans getting food poisoning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a Salmonella Action Plan to modernize the way that poultry is slaughtered and inspected.