Researchers at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute have identified the Top 10 riskiest combinations of foods and disease-causing microorganisms, providing an important tool for food safety officials charged with protecting consumers from these costly and potentially life-threatening bugs.
The report, “Ranking the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health,” lists the number of illnesses, costs, and overall public health burden of specific microbes in particular types of food—such as Salmonella in poultry and Listeria in deli meat. This is the first comprehensive ranking of pathogen-food combinations that has been computed for the United States.
Millions of Americans get food poisoning each year and thousands die. Federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and more than 3,000 state and local governments are charged with protecting consumers from these risks, but their efforts often are fragmented and uncoordinated.
“The number of hazards and scale of the food system make for a critical challenge for consumers and government alike,” said Michael Batz, lead author of the report and head of Food Safety Programs at the Emerging Pathogens Institute. “Government agencies must work together to effectively target their efforts. If we don’t identify which pairs of foods and microbes present the greatest burden, we’ll waste time and resources and put even more people at risk.”
Of these, the new report concludes that five leading bugs—Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma gondii and norovirus—result in $12.7 billion in annual economic loss, with the Top 10 pathogen-food combinations responsible for more than $8 billion.
That burden includes the cost of medical care and lost productivity from employee sick days, as well as the expense of serious complications or chronic disabilities that result from the acute illness or sometimes strike after acute illness goes away.
The report, which was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, includes the following key findings and recommendations for food safety officials:
Last year, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which broadly directs the FDA to adopt a more preventative, risk-based approach, but doesn’t spell out exactly how this should be done. The risk-based analysis in the report provides the agency with one tool it can use to prioritize limited resources in ways that best protect consumers.
The University of Florida researchers suggest that people should use this report not as a top 10 list of foods to avoid but as a reminder that many of the foods we eat every day can become contaminated. While some food safety risks are outside of our control as consumers, the researchers say that effective food safety practices—such as making sure you wash your hands frequently and using separate cutting boards and knives for meat and produce—can help to keep your family safe from foodborne illness.