Washington, D.C. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today released preliminary data documenting an upward trend in foodborne illness. The incidence of infections caused by Campylobacter, Yersinia, Cyclospora, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs), and Vibrio rose in 2019 compared with the previous three years (2016-2018). Progress in reducing Salmonella, Shigella, and Listeria infections was effectively stalled.
“This latest CDC data makes clear that the status quo is not working,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy for the Consumer Federation of America. “The food industry can do much better, particularly when it comes to meat and poultry.”
The CDC report emphasizes the role of chicken as an ongoing source of disease. Campylobacter, typically associated with consumption of chicken, remained the most commonly reported pathogen associated with foodborne illness in 2019. The incidence rate for Campylobacter infection increased by 13% compared to the baseline period. Last year, CDC recommended interventions to “target Campylobacter contamination in chicken.” The recommendation issued shortly after USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) suspended testing to verify compliance with performance standards for Campylobacter in chicken, citing testing difficulties. Almost two years later, new performance standards have yet to be implemented by FSIS.
This year, the CDC report recommends targeting specific Salmonella serotypes in chicken. The recommendation is based in part on data showing a significant decline in infections caused by Salmonella serotype Typhimurium. The decline reflects widespread vaccination of chicken flocks against the Typhimurium subtype, according to CDC. The CDC report cites the experience of the United Kingdom as evidence that similarly targeted efforts to reduce Salmonella Enteriditis infections, the most common Salmonella infections in humans, could pay off too.
Notably, FSIS officials have indicated that they will not pursue any serotype specific Salmonella reduction strategies, even though for decades poultry farmers have targeted specific Salmonella serotypes that cause illness in animals. On a stakeholder call to present the main findings of the CDC report, an FSIS official reiterated a critique of these strategies previously expressed by the FSIS head, Under Secretary Mindy Brashears: namely, regulators should focus on targeting specific virulence factors in Salmonella, rather than particular serotypes.
“The problem with that approach,” said Gremillion, “is that research identifying Salmonella virulence factors is still in its infancy. We know now, based on evidence that includes successful regulation in lots of other countries, that going on the farm and searching for particular Salmonella serotypes that make people sick—not just chickens—can really benefit public health.”
Compared to the baseline period, CDC’s preliminary data from 2019 also show a 153% increase in foodborne illnesses caused by Yersinia enterocolitica, a bacteria associated with pork. Pork is also estimated to cause over 10% of salmonellosis cases. CFA has raised concerns that recently implemented hog slaughter inspection reforms, which transfer many government inspector duties to company employees and eliminate line speed caps, could exacerbate food safety problems associated with pork.
Meat and poultry is not the only source of concern when it comes to foodborne illness. The largest percentage increase in incidence rates was for Cyclospora, a parasite often associated with fresh produce. In the past, Cyclospora outbreaks have been linked to poor hygiene on farms, where workers may not have proper handwashing facilities, or even toilets.
“The giant uptick in Cyclospora illnesses points to a continued need for improving farmworker conditions and training,” said Gremillion. “There are some innovative strategies underway, such as the Equitable Food Initiative, which trains and support farms to create food safety culture, but a lot of these problems are deeply entrenched and will require far reaching reforms.”
Looking forward, early evidence from the COVID-19 crisis suggests that many victims of foodborne illness are suffering in silence, so to speak. CDC officials have acknowledged that state public health departments have collected far fewer samples from foodborne illness victims, many of whom have likely sought to avoid seeking treatment, at least in person.