December 16, 2010

48 Million Americans Suffer Foodborne Illness Each Year

About one in six Americans, or roughly 48 million people, are sickened from with foodborne illnesses each year, according to new estimates released Wednesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Of those, nearly 3,000 are killed and 128,000 require hospitalization due to their illness, the health agency said.

The figures are the first comprehensive estimates since 1999, and are the CDC's first to include illnesses caused solely by foods consumed in the United States.

The CDC's report said that roughly 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths were due to seven pathogens: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E.coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens.

Among the findings for foodborne illnesses due to known pathogens, Salmonella was the leading cause of hospitalizations and deaths, responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations due to known pathogens transmitted by food. 

Nearly 60 percent of the estimated illnesses are caused by norovirus, by far the most common foodborne germ. Norovirus, sometimes called Norwalk virus, accounts for 5.5 million infections year, the CDC said.  Salmonella causes 1 million infections a year, or 11 percent of the total, according to the report.

Outbreaks of foodborne illness have killed hundreds of Americans in recent years, forcing mass recalls of a variety of foods.

Congress is working to pass a major food safety bill this week before the conclusion of its session.  The legislation, which covers processed foods, fruit and vegetables but not meat, would give the federal government the power to order food recalls, and would require processing plants to be inspected more frequently.

The CDC had previously said that foodborne diseases were responsible for 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.  However, the latest numbers are more accurate due to better methods used in compiling the data, the CDC said.

Experts at the agency reviewed hospital reports and the CDC's own food safety program, then extrapolated the numbers to the total U.S. population to estimate the severity of the nation's foodborne illness problem.

The experts identified 31 major pathogens that caused 9.4 million episodes of foodborne illness, resulting in 1,600 deaths.

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses typically include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and fever.  However, some pathogens can cause organ failure.  Pathogenic E. coli, for instance, can severely damage the kidneys.

After norovirus and Salmonella, the three most common causes of illness are bacteria Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter and Staphylococcus aureus, the CDC said.

U.S. food safety is regulated by a number of agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and others.

After reviewing the latest CDC figures, the FDA called for boosting efforts to address the problem.

"We must, and can, do better by intensifying our efforts to implement measures that are prevention-oriented and science-based. We are moving down this path as quickly as possible under current authorities but eagerly await passage of new food safety legislation that would provide us with new and long overdue tools to further modernize our food safety program," the agency said in a statement.

The latest CDC figures were published Wednesday in two articles in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.


Image Caption: Transmission electron micrograph of Norovirus particles. Credit: GrahamColm/Wikipedia 


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