Washington, D.C.—The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) released a new report examining the link between foodborne illness and poverty. CFA’s report, titled Foodborne Illness: Another Way the Poor Pay More, documents the research showing that living in poverty puts consumers, particularly those under five years of age, at higher risk of infection from foodborne pathogens such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Shigella.
The higher incidence of reported foodborne illnesses in areas with higher poverty levels raises serious concerns, particularly since so many factors would seem to support opposite results. Poor consumers are less likely to have reliable access to healthcare and therefore are less likely to have a foodborne illness reported. The poor also have less access to “high-risk” foods—in particular fresh produce, which accounts for an estimated 17% of Salmonella illnesses, and nearly half of all reported foodborne illnesses each year. Moreover, they are less likely to eat “high-risk” foods like raw oysters and raw beef, and to dine out frequently.
Nevertheless, infection rates for common foodborne pathogens are much higher for the poor, in particular for children. Children under five years of age living in a high poverty census tract are 50% more likely to report a Salmonella infection.
The reasons behind the disparate impact remain unclear. Cultural practices, such as cooking a whole turkey overnight, may contribute to the higher foodborne illness rates among the poor. Some evidence suggests that retailers in poorer communities may contribute to the risk by, for example, failing to maintain adequate refrigeration. Perhaps most importantly, living in poverty itself is an important risk factor for foodborne illness, in part because of inadequate nutrition. Over 23 million U.S. consumers, about half of whom are “low-income,” live in a food desert. Research shows that poor nutrition makes individuals more vulnerable to foodborne illness.
CFA’s report provides five action steps to help protect the poor from foodborne illness:
- Protect consumers from meat and poultry adulterated with virulent Salmonella. Through the use of vaccines, close monitoring, and data transparency, regulators could make significant progress in reducing the toll of salmonellosis caused by meat and poultry, which is currently subject to an antiquated regulatory regime.
- Make fresh produce safer. To avoid future outbreaks, federal regulators should follow through on rules requiring sanitization of agricultural water, and consider incentives for cattle producers to vaccinate cattle against coli.
- Slow the rise of superbugs. Widespread use of antibiotics creates antibiotic resistant bugs. While a comprehensive response from Congress is needed, a good start would be to create a system to collect data on how antibiotics are used on-farm, including information on quantities of antibiotics used and the specific indications for use.
- Promote a culture of food safety in the workplace. Food workers are on the front lines of the fight to prevent foodborne illness. Yet workers that lack basic workplace safety protections, including paid sick leave, cannot be expected to contribute to the attitudes, values and beliefs that make a successful culture of food safety possible.
- Create a single, independent food safety agency. 15 different federal agencies currently divvy up responsibility for ensuring the safety of the food supply. The Safe Food Act would consolidate federal food safety activities into one independent single food safety agency, with broad jurisdiction to address food safety hazards wherever they may emerge.
“Too often foodborne illness is characterized as a minor nuisance, and food safety a luxury that we can afford to cut back on,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at CFA. “This report shows that investing in food safety isn’t just good for public health, it’s a matter of social justice.”
“The burden of foodborne illness on our most vulnerable communities is alarming,” said Nick Roper, a CFA Administrative and Advocacy Associate. “Policymakers should take steps to better understand this problem and direct the resources necessary to eliminate this additional poverty penalty.”
Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010