New federal data released by the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) shows little improvement in terms of foodborne illnesses compared to previous years. The 2014 Food Safety Progress Report compares foodborne outbreaks with data collected from 2006 to 2008, and 2011 to 2013.

“The news is mixed,” says Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of the enteric diseases epidemiology branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases. “Some infections declined but others increased and most did not change. Clearly, more work is needed.”

FoodNet is made up of the CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and 10 state health departments. Together, they track occurrences of Campylobacter, Escherichia coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella and other foodborne pathogens.

Below are some of FoodNet’s key findings based on laboratory testing in the 10 states it monitors, which vary greatly from general estimates previously published by the CDC:

  • 19,542: number of infections (vs. CDC’s estimate of 48 million)
  • 4,445: number of hospitalizations (vs. CDC’s estimate of 128,000)
  • 71 number of deaths reported in 2014 (vs. CDC’s estimate of 3,000)

The current number of infections is a decrease of two percent versus the number reported in 2011, but it’s a 12 percent increase compared to 2006. It is important to note that the CDC does incorporate FoodNet’s findings into its own estimates. Also, while FoodNet only tracks illness in 15 percent of the population, the findings are considered to be representative of the entire U.S.

The most common foodborne infections were:

  1. Salmonella (38 percent)
  2. Campylobacter (33 percent)
  3. E. coli (6 percent)

No Progress
There has been a stall in reducing occurrences of Campylobacter and Salmonella, leading health officials to question why current prevention tactics are not working. Campylobacter--usually caused by consuming undercooked poultry--has risen by 13 percent. Two strains of Salmonella--javiana and infantis, found in undercooked eggs, milk and meat--have more than doubled. But oddly, Salmonella’s typhimurium strain has decreased by almost one-third.

Listeria--currently known as the culprit in this year’s massive Blue Bell Creameries outbreak--was responsible for the most deaths of any strain last year. Of the 118 people who were diagnosed with Listeriosis, 18 of them died.

Some Good News
The silver lining in all this data is that the number of E. coli O157 illnesses--most commonly linked to undercooked ground beef--has decreased since 2006. At that time, a spinach outbreak sickened 200 people and caused five deaths.

This decline is especially good news for The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA)since preventing contamination of leafy green fields from E. coli is a huge objective for the organization. A statment issued by the LGMA reads, in part:

“The LGMA and our members are very encouraged to see the decline in E. coli 0157:H7 since 2006,” says Scott Horsfall, LGMA's CEO. “These numbers mean that fewer people are being affected by this tragic foodborne illness. The California and Arizona leafy greens communities share the commitment of government agencies like CDC and FDA in preventing foodborne illness. That is the goal of our mandatory food safety program and we continue to work toward continuous improvements in further reducing foodborne illness incidents.”

Overall, health officials agree that more work needs to be done to understand what prevention efforts work best, then educating the public on what they should be doing to keep from getting sick.