Meat/Poultry Inspection

Stalled Progress on Foodborne Illness, According To New CDC Data

Report Shows Significant Upticks in Illness Caused by Common Foodborne Pathogens

Washington D.C.—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today released preliminary data documenting trends in foodborne illness, and while changes in testing protocols have complicated year-over-year comparisons, the data make clear that consumers need more effective protections against contaminated food. The new data show higher numbers of lab-confirmed illnesses caused by Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs), Salmonella, Campylobacter, Yersinia, and Cyclospora.

The most commonly reported pathogen associated with foodborne illness was Campylobacter, which had an incidence rate of 19.6 cases per 100,000 people in 2018, a twelve percent increase compared to a baseline period of 2015-2017. In its report, CDC recommends measures to “target Campylobacter contamination in chicken” as a means of reducing foodborne illness.

Consumer groups welcomed that advice. “USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service prompted an outcry from consumer advocates last year when it revealed that changes in the Campylobacter testing methodology have prevented the agency from detecting the vast majority of positive samples,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at CFA. “We remain concerned by the agency’s decision to discontinue assessing whether establishments meet the current Campylobacter performance standards while it develops new standards. Hopefully this latest data will motivate USDA to reconsider interim measures for controlling Campylobacter in poultry plants, and to work expeditiously to develop new performance standards.”

Compared to a baseline period of 2015-2017, the preliminary data from 2018 also show a 109% increase in foodborne illnesses caused by Yersinia enterocolitica, a bacteria associated with pork. Pork is also estimated to cause over 10% of salmonellosis cases, and the new CDC data indicates that Salmonella illnesses have increased by 9% compared to the baseline.

“These latest data should invite renewed scrutiny of USDA’s proposal to ‘modernize’ hog slaughter inspection by transferring more food safety responsibilities to company employees,” said Gremillion. “They also underscore the need for USDA to keep track of which slaughterhouses are doing a good job at keeping Salmonella levels down, and which ones are utterly failing.”

The largest overall increase reported by CDC was the incidence rate of illnesses caused by the parasite Cyclospora—399% compared to the baseline period. “There were several high-profile outbreaks of cyclosporiasis in 2018 related to fresh produce,” Gremillion pointed out, “and new diagnostic tools may have helped to connect the dots in some of those. What’s clear though is that FDA needs to continue implementing the Produce Safety Rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and to ensure that all produce farms are using clean water and taking the other steps necessary to prevent Cyclospora contamination.”

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010