Foodborne Illness From Imported Food Rises

Mar 16, 2012, 4:05 PM, Posted by

Foodborne illness continues to be in the news. This week researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presented research at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases that found that foodborne disease outbreaks linked to foreign imports appear to have risen dramatically in 2009 and 2010.

Other findings from the research, which has not yet been published:

  • Nearly half of the outbreaks involved foods imported from areas that previously had not been associated with foodborne illness.
  • Between 2005 and 2010, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those outbreaks, nearly half (17) occurred in 2009 and 2010.
  • Fish was the most common source of an outbreak; spices were the second most common.
  • Nearly 45 percent of imported foods linked to outbreaks came from Asia.

“As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too,” says Hannah Gould, PhD, an epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, and the lead author of the new study.

The increase in outbreaks is likely tied to a parallel increase in food imports. The CDC researchers cite a recent report by the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service that shows that U.S. food imports grew from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007. Up to 85 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. and up to 60 percent of the produce—depending on the season—is imported from outside the U.S.

Bonus Background: Read a Washington Post article on efforts and obstacles at the Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration to improve food safety. “FDA has a broader mission, but, I think it’s fair to say, not enough resources,” says Michael Batz, head of Food Safety Programs at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. Batz authored a report, supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that identified the ten most common food and microorganism combinations that cause food-borne illness.

Also, listen to a podcast with Jeff Levi, PhD, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, about the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which went into effect last year.


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