Study names produce as cause of most foodborne illness

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2013- Most foodborne illnesses can be attributed to leafy vegetables, while most deaths related to foodborne noroviruses are the result of contaminated poultry, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study.

CDC used data from outbreak-associated illnesses for 1998-2008 to estimate annual foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths attributable to a list of 17 food commodities. The study attributed 46% of illnesses to produce and found that more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity.

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“The attribution of foodborne-associated illnesses and deaths to specific commodities is useful for prioritizing public health activities; however, additional data on the specific food consumed is needed to assess per-serving risk,” noted the study.

The outbreak-based method attributed most foodborne illnesses to food commodities that make up a major portion of the U.S. diet. CDC noted when certain food commodities are consumed frequently, even those with a low risk for pathogen transmission per serving may result in a high number of illnesses.

“To the extent that these estimates reflect the commodities causing all foodborne illness, they indicate that efforts are particularly needed to prevent contamination of produce and poultry,” stated the report, which noted that more than nine million people per year have a foodborne illness caused by a major pathogen.

Leafy vegetables contributed to 22 percent of illnesses, more than any other commodity. Illnesses associated with leafy vegetables were also the second most frequent cause of hospitalizations at 14 percent.  

Regarding other produce, the study listed outbreaks of E. coli infections transmitted by spinach and lettuce, and Salmonella infections transmitted by tomatoes, juice, mangoes, sprouts and peppers, as underlining the concerns about contamination of produce consumed raw.

The study found most poultry-associated deaths caused by Listeria or Salmonella, and that more deaths were attributed to poultry, at 19 percent, than any other commodity.

“From 1998 through 2002, three large listeriosis outbreaks were linked to turkey delicatessen meat contaminated in the processing plant after cooking,” stated the report. “A risk-ranking model for listeriosis among ready-to-eat foods identified delicatessen meat as the highest risk food.”

According to CDC's data, dairy was the second most frequent food source for infections causing illnesses at 14 percent, as well as deaths at 10 percent. The study acknowledged that improper pasteurization and incidents of contamination after pasteurization can occur, but the data reflected a high number of outbreaks associated with raw milk compared with the quantity of raw milk consumed.

“These factors likely resulted in an overestimation of illnesses attributed to dairy,” noted the study. “Models that partition raw versus pasteurized milk and that incorporate other data sources for Campylobacter infection could improve estimates of illnesses related to dairy.”

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