Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest

Foodborne illness outbreaks are trending downward, according to a new review of outbreaks by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

From 2001 to 2010, the latest 10-year period for which data is available, outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens appear to have decreased by more than 40 percent. Better food safety practices, notably the adoption of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs in the meat, poultry, and seafood industries, may have contributed to the decline, says CSPI. But the group cautions that incomplete reporting of outbreaks by understaffed and financially stretched public health agencies may also influence the data.

"Despite progress made by the industry and by food safety regulators, contaminated food is still causing too many illnesses, visits to the emergency room, and deaths," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Yet state and local health departments and federal food safety programs always seem to be on the chopping block. Those financial pressures not only threaten the progress we've made on food safety, but threaten our very understanding of which foods and which pathogens are making people sick."

Foodborne illness is already notoriously underreported, says CSPI, since most people do not seek medical treatment for typical cases of food poisoning. But another trend the group has observed is a decline in the extent to which reports of foodborne illness outbreaks are fully investigated. An outbreak is considered fully investigated when both the food and the pathogen responsible for the illnesses are identified. But during the 10-year period, the percentage of fully investigated outbreaks decreased from 46 percent in 2001 to 33 percent in 2010.

Seafood, poultry, and beef showed the sharpest decline in the number of reported outbreaks in the study period; the trend line is less steep, but still downward, for the numbers of illnesses linked to those outbreaks. Outbreaks related to produce, which is responsible for more illnesses than any other category of food, have remained relatively flat. Illnesses related to dairy actually reached their highest point in 2010, the last year of the study period. CSPI says the increased availability of raw, unpasteurized milk and cheese may account for this; these products are inherently hazardous and should not be consumed at all, the organization says.

Despite the high-profile outbreaks related to spinach, salsa, tomatoes, cantaloupes, and other fresh fruits and vegetables, CSPI says that people should continue eating a lot of them, because they are among the most nutritious foods, providing essential minerals, vitamins, and fiber. In fact, the group says that on a pound-for-pound basis, fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy, are among the safest foods to eat. When adjusted for consumption, it is seafood that presents the greatest risk of illness, causing almost 20 times as much disease as fruit and dairy.

Foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which include produce, seafood, dairy, and most packaged foods, were responsible for more than twice as many outbreaks as the meat and poultry foods regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The FDA is currently developing regulations to comply with the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2011. That law gave the agency new authority to regulate the way foods are grown, harvested, and processed, as well as giving it the authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated products.

CSPI's Outbreak Alert! Database includes 7,194 unique and fully investigated outbreaks responsible for 205,867 illnesses from 1990 to 2010. It’s a small fraction of total foodborne illness, but represents those outbreaks that present the most useful information for consumers and government regulators. Most of CSPI's data comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Foodborne Outbreak Online Database, as well as from state health department reports, peer-reviewed journals, and CDC's Foodborne Outbreak Response and Surveillance Unit.

According to the CDC, each year foodborne pathogens sicken 1 in 6 Americans each year, or about 48 million people. Approximately 128,000 of those people will be hospitalized, and 3,000 will die.