- Salmonella, cyclospora and campylobacter infections were up last year compared to previous years, but the jump might be partly due to the wider use of culture-independent diagnostic tests, according to new research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- The Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network within the CDC's Emerging Infections Program monitors 10 states for laboratory-diagnosed infections caused by eight pathogens commonly transmitted through food. The preliminary 2018 data identified 25,606 infections, 5,893 hospitalizations and 120 deaths during the year.
- Increases in cyclospora infections last year were related to large outbreaks linked to produce, researchers said. Infections caused by campylobacter and salmonella also remain high. The report called for more investment to reduce the problem.
The CDC investigated 23 multistate illness outbreaks last year, which was the highest number in 12 years, according to The Washington Post. The agency worked on E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce; looked into a salmonella outbreak related to eggs, raw beef, frozen chicken and canned pork; and investigated outbreaks linked to Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter, Lebanon bologna and Hy-Vee Spring Pasta Salad.
Although technology has made it easier to detect the sources of infections, the increasing frequency of several types of food poisoning cases can still cause concern among consumers. Companies will likely continue investing in food safety technology and taking precautions to maintain consumer trust, targeting the products that are seeing the most infections.
The report revealed some patterns when examining the number of foodborne illness cases. Campylobacter had the highest incidence rate, at 19.5 cases per 100,000 people, followed by salmonella, with 18.3 per 100,000 people. Researchers also noted the cyclospora incidence rate for 2018 — while just 0.7 cases per 100,000 people — skyrocketed 399% compared to the number of cases from 2015 through 2017. Incidences of campylobacter were up 12% and salmonella cases jumped 9%.
The reasons for these increases vary depending on the pathogens. Researchers said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service adopted a new testing method for poultry — a major source of campylobacter — in August. Using the new method, the pathogen was isolated from 18% of chicken carcasses and 16% of chicken parts, the report said.
In the case of salmonella enteritidis — the most common salmonella serotype — the incidence rate hasn't dropped in more than 10 years, researchers pointed out. The report noted that the pathogen has adapted to live in poultry, and eggs are also a source of infection.
While the FDA has required safety measures on poultry farms with 3,000 hens or more since 2012, researchers said a multistate outbreak of salmonella enteritidis infections last year was linked to an Alabama farm that had not followed them. Unmet salmonella performance standards in slaughterhouses that process chicken parts also contribute to the number of outbreaks.
The incidence of salmonella typhimurium actually declined in 2018, the report said. Researchers speculated changing poultry production practices, including vaccination against it, could have been the reason. A successfull reduction effort in the U.K. could bring the program to wider acceptance in the United States.
The CDC said targeting campylobacter contamination of chicken, strengthening prevention measures during egg production, vaccinating poultry against salmonella, and less contamination of produce, poultry and meat could decrease the frequency of foodborne illnesses.
Some companies are working on food safety improvements. Tyson Ventures, the meat compay's VC arm, recently invested in Clear Labs' automated food safety platform, which can detect salmonella and E. coli in 24 hours instead of three to five days. Such advances, along with enforced performance standards and safety practices, could go a long way toward improving current foodborne illness statistics.
Meanwhile, public health officials are using diagnostic tools such as pulsed-field gel electrophoresis and whole genome sequencing to more quickly and accurately chase down foodborne illness cases. Private labs are investing in cutting-edge technology to reduce testing times, limit false negatives and positives, and profile pathogens to get a clearer picture.
It's in food manufacturers' interest to pay attention to these illness trends and do whatever they can to keep current on performance standards to avoid recalls and increase consumer confidence in the safety of their products.