New Report Identifies Top Ten Pathogen-Food Combinations That Cause Food-Borne Illness

Apr 28, 2011, 1:54 PM

A new report released today provides a valuable tool to help better detect contaminated foods before they reach consumers. Proposed steep budget cuts for federal food agencies and ongoing concerns over food safety make this report — from the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute — a timely resource for public health officials.

The report, Ranking the Risks: The Ten Pathogen-Food Combinations with the Greatest Burden on Public Health (pdf), identifies the top ten riskiest combinations of foods and pathogens. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the report offers food regulators a better way to target resources towards the most concerning food-pathogen combinations.

The researchers found that out of 31 individual pathogens that cause human illness, just five — Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma gondii and Norovirus — result in $12.7 billion in economic loss.

The top 10 pathogen-food combinations make up $8 billion of that amount. Those ten particular combinations are also responsible for about 85% of food-borne illness in the U.S., says Michael Batz, head of food safety programs at the Emerging Pathogens Institute and lead author of the new report. (RELATED: Read an in-depth Q&A about the report with Michael Batz)

Key findings in the report:

  • The top-ranked pathogen-food combination is poultry contaminated with Campylobacter, a combination that sickens more than 600,000 people in the U.S., at a cost of $1.3 billion per year. Recommendation: The report questions whether new safety standards for chickens and turkeys are tough enough and recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tighten these standards over time.

  • Salmonella is the leading pathogen overall, causing more than $3 billion in disease-related costs annually. In addition to poultry, Salmonella-contaminated produce, eggs and other affected foods all rank in the Top 10. Recommendation: The researchers suggest that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA develop a joint initiative on Salmonella.

  • Four combinations in the Top 10—Listeria in luncheon meats and dairy products and Toxoplasma in pork and beef pose serious risks to pregnant women. Infection with these pathogens can cause illness in the mother and developing fetus or newborn. Recommendation: Federal agencies should strengthen prevention programs aimed at these pathogens and improve educational efforts for pregnant women.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.