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Number of Foodborne Illness Cases Largely Unchanged in U.S.

Published: Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Last Updated: Tuesday, May 07, 2013
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Recently released reports about the frequency of foodborne illness show that the risks have not changed much in recent years, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The reports received a lot of attention by the news media the last few weeks.

One of those reports was the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's annual "Trends in Foodborne Illness in the United States 2012." In that document, the CDC analyzes data from FoodNet, a system that tracks foodborne illness in about 10 states, and then projects these numbers for the entire country.

"The report pointed out that despite efforts at public education aimed at prevention, the rates of foodborne illness largely have remained unchanged," said Martin Bucknavage, food-safety specialist with Penn State Extension. "Salmonella still remains one of the most common causes of foodborne illness, and the number of cases remained roughly the same."

The report indicated, however, that there was an increase in the rate of Campylobacter infection, But Bucknavage noted that there may be an explanation for that rise that is unrelated to more cases of illness.

"I think it can be argued that this may be the result of increased testing for Campylobacter and that the methodology for testing has improved," he said. "Campylobacter has traditionally not been an easy organism to culture, so as methodologies have improved, one would guess that labs will find it more often."

Raw poultry is a main source of Campylobacter, and while the food industry is working to reduce levels on poultry, Bucknavage pointed out, there is no magic bullet for eliminating it from poultry at the processing level.

So it comes down to consumers controlling it through proper preparation -- cooking poultry to the right temperature -- as well as proper handling, such as preventing cross-contamination of food items with the raw product, he explained.

Vibrio is another pathogenic organism that has seen an increase, and the primary vehicle for Vibrio is raw oysters. "There are not many cases reported, probably because there are not many people who eat raw oysters," Bucknavage said.

"If consumers ate raw oysters as much as they ate bagged leafy greens, the numbers for Vibrio infections would dwarf all others."

People wonder if the numbers of foodborne illness cases have changed in recent years, Bucknavage acknowledged. Despite reports to the contrary, he suspects that there actually are fewer cases.

"We know that there are foods that are risky, such as raw oysters, and that practices for handling and preparing food need to improve throughout the food chain from the farm to the table," he said. "But one sign I have seen comes from the businesses that aid victims of foodborne illness -- the food-illness lawyers.

"According to a posting by one of the preeminent firms from that group, business is down."

The other report that garnered media attention, "Risky Meat: A CSPI Field Guide to Meat and Poultry Safety," was issued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Bucknavage suggested the title of this document should have been "Meats that Pose a Risk for Those Who Fail to Properly Cook and Clean."

The strength of the CSPI report is that it reminds us that raw meat has the potential to carry pathogenic bacteria, Bucknavage said. "But the sound bite heard over and over in the media was that chicken and hamburger are high-risk meats. Well, these meats are only risky if they are not properly handled and prepared.

"While the meat and poultry industry works to reduce the levels of pathogenic microorganisms on raw meat products, those items still have the potential to carry pathogenic micro-organisms.  But the risk is for people who mishandle or improperly prepare them."

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