Multi-state outbreaks of foodborne illnesses more deadly, CDC finds

Multi-state outbreaks of foodborne diseases accounted for just 3 percent of all such outbreaks in the U.S. between 2010-2014, but caused 56 percent of deaths from the infections, the federal government reported Tuesday.

Three germs – Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria – caused 91 percent of the 120 multi-state outbreaks analyzed in a new report released Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those 120 outbreaks, an average of 24 per year, accounted for just 11 percent of all such foodborne outbreaks and 34 percent of resulting hospitalizations.

But researchers believe more people are dying in the multi-state outbreaks because the infections are deadlier.

Scientists at CDC compared data on mult-istate outbreaks over a five-year period with data from single-state infections. They found Salmonella caused the three largest outbreaks with the most illnesses and hospitalizations.

Listeria was the most deadly, due mainly to a 2011 outbreak in which contaminated cantaloupe killed 33 people. Imported food, mainly from Mexico and Turkey, accounted for 18 multi-state outbreaks.

The report spotlights the need for food manufacturers to improve safety practices in the growing, processing and transportation of food and for them to keep more detailed records that help trace contaminated foods faster.

The report also recommends that health agencies at all levels of government work with the food industry to address and fix problems that can lead to food contamination.

“Americans should not have to worry about getting sick from the food they eat,” said a statement from CDC Director Tom Frieden. “Top-notch epidemiology and new gene sequencing tools are helping us quickly track down the source of foodborne outbreaks – and together with our national partners we are working with the food industry to prevent them from happening in the first place.”

One in six people get sick each year from eating contaminated food, Frieden said, adding that for every case of Salmonella reported, 29 cases go unreported, For a common strain of E. coli, it's 26 unreported cases for each reported case, Frieden said.

But disease detectives are finding more outbreaks because DNA fingerprinting, which is used to find foods implicated in outbreaks.

“They’re cracking these cases much more frequently than we have been in past years because we have this new DNA fingerprinting tool being used increasingly. Still, too many outbreaks go unsolved,” Frieden told reporters, because it’ hard to determine the source food in an outbreak and where illnesses first occurred.

The Food and Drug Administration is working on new regulations that require food importers to assure that their suppliers meet U.S. safety standards. The new guidelines would hold domestic and foreign companies accountable for preventing food contamination.

Additional regulations that address intentional adulteration and sanitary transportation of food are expected in the coming months.

“Consumers should be able to have confidence that steps are being taken from farm to table to minimize the risk of illness from the food they feed their families,” said a statement from Michael R. Taylor, an FDA deputy commissioner. “By continuing to work with our government partners and industry, we can build a food safety system and culture focused on prevention.”