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Food poisoning on rise in US, survey finds

A crackdown on slaughterhouses has helped cut rates of certain types of food poisoning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday. But other causes of stomach upset are on the rise – a trend that indicates better regulation of meat from hoof to plate is needed, as well as stricter regulation of produce and processed food, the CDC says.

One type of stomach bug called Campylobacter, carried in chicken and unpasteurized milk and cheese, is becoming more common, the CDC’s regular survey of foodborne illness finds.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, an expert in foodborne illness at CDC, says meat-related foodborne illnesses have plummeted since the agency started intensively studying trends in 1996. “When we look at what has changed between the 2006-2008 period and now, unfortunately nothing has gone down and a couple of infections have gone up,” Tauxe added in a telephone interview.

“Campylobacter has increased 14 percent since 2006-2008 and then there are the much less common Vibrio infections -- and those have increased 43 percent.” There were 193 reported cases of Vibrio infection in 2012, with six deaths.

Vibrio bacteria are in the same family as cholera, but in this case not nearly as dangerous. They thrive in warm sea water and mostly sicken people who eat raw oysters or who go into affected waters with an open cut, Tauxe says. “The warmer it is, the more Vibrios there are,” he said. “It grows a lot when the water is warm. It is a problem in the summer much more than in the winter.”

But by far the most common cause of food poisoning is Salmonella, the CDC found using its Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network or FOODNet, which collects data in 10 states. “Salmonella is in the number one spot, causing 40 percent of the infections that the FOODNet system collected,” Tauxe said. “Campylobacter was number two, pretty close behind at 35 percent.”

The FOODNet system documented 7,800 Salmonella infections in 2012, with 33 deaths. Nearly 7,000 people were diagnosed with Campylobacter infections, and six died. That’s just a small percentage of the actual cases – CDC estimates that about 48 million Americans, or one in six, get sick from eating contaminated food each year and 3,000 die.

“We figure that for every infection that is diagnosed, there are 25 or 30 more illnesses out there,” Tauxe said. “Maybe some of those people don’t see a doctor or maybe they do see a doctor but there isn’t a culture.”

New USDA regulations that require more intense testing of food animals probably caused Campylobacter infections to fall in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the CDC says. But not enough, Tauxe said.

“What I take away from this is we need to think more and more about what happens to the animals before they come to slaughter, what happens back on the farm and what happens with other foods such as produce and processed foods,” he said.

New Food and Drug Administration regulations regarding produce may help prevent other sources of illness, he added. They require facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold human food to develop formal plans for preventing their products from causing foodborne illness.

The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act was designed to help the FDA better able to prevent foodborne outbreaks, rather than simply reacting after one happens. FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg asked Congress for $295.8 million this year to help implement the new regulations.

“The fresh produce is important. We have had a lot of Salmonella problems related to fresh produce,” Tauxe said. “Further attention to poultry parts and ground poultry like ground turkey may help, and the processed food industry – the people who make peanut butter and many other processed foods – I think there is room for improvement there.”

Many of the bugs that sicken people live naturally in the digestive systems of animals, including people. Outbreaks of disease have been linked to unclean slaughtering processes and unhygienic meat handling.

And it was thought that fresh produce, such as lettuce and cantelopes, were contaminated by manure. But there may be more to it than that, Tauxe says.

“There is reason to think that some Salmonella may be more at home than we think in plants,” he said. “They are not just passively on the plant. They may be inside the plant, which is a great place to be because you don’t get washed off and the next animal or person to eat the plant gets it.”

In January CDC released a report showing that produce accounted for 46 percent of foodborne illnesses between 1998 and 2008, while contaminated meat accounted for fewer illnesses but more deaths -- 29 percent of deaths in total.